Blog

By Marsha Basloe, President, Child Care Services Association

During a child’s earliest years, brain development occurs that sets the architecture for all future learning (e.g., the wiring needed for healthy child development across social, emotional, physical, and cognitive areas).[1]  This is what makes high-quality child care for infants and toddlers so important.

At the same time, infant and toddler care is the hardest to find. The supply of infant and toddler care pales in comparison to the needs of working parents. A report by the Center for American Progress found that 44 percent of families in North Carolina live in a child care desert where the demand for child care by working families far exceeds the supply.[2]

Even when families can find it, too many struggle with the cost, particularly for infants and toddlers. Throughout North Carolina, the average annual price of child care for an infant in a child care center is $9,254.[3]  The average annual price of child care for an infant in a family child care home is $7,412.[4]

Data from: NC Labor

For perspective, for a single mother earning minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) working full-time, she would earn $15,080 per year. The cost of center-based infant care would be 61.4 percent of her income. The cost of infant care in a family child care home would be 49.2 percent of her income. If she earns twice the minimum wage ($14.50 per hour), about $30,160 per year – the cost of child care in a center would be 30.7 percent of her income. The cost of infant care in a family child care home would be 24.6 percent of her income. If she earns three times the minimum wage ($21.75 per hour), her annual income would be about $45,240 per year. Center-based infant care would cost 20.5 percent of her income; infant care in a family child care home would cost 16.4 percent of her income.

To help families with the cost of child care, the North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) offers qualifying families a subsidy.[5] The state pays most of the cost and families have a 10 percent co-pay. Unfortunately, not all families who qualify can receive assistance and more than 30,000 eligible children throughout the state are on a waiting list for child care financial help.[6] It is important to note that the waiting list is only a snapshot in time because some families don’t join the list when they hear about the length of it. So, the waiting list reflects only those who qualify for help and who also add their names to the waiting list in case more funding becomes available to support additional families.

For families with infants and toddlers, the supply and cost are both struggles. It’s unrealistic to think that families can access the licensed market if they have to pay a huge percentage of their income to cover the cost. Why is that a concern to all North Carolina taxpayers? There are several reasons.

  • Quality of child care and long-term taxpayer bills. When parents can’t afford the licensed market, if they must stay in the workforce to make ends meet, then they will try to make do with a variety of unlicensed care options. Given the brain development that is underway during a child’s earliest years, it is critical that a child be in a setting that promotes his or her healthy development. That’s one of the reasons for the rated child care license[7] in North Carolina and one of the reasons the NC General Assembly restricted the receipt of child care subsidies to programs with at least a 3-star rating. Supporting healthy child development is important, particularly for infants and toddlers when the brain is developing the fastest.  Taxpayers will pay more in the long-term when a child enters kindergarten without the skills to succeed through additional costs for remediation, for special education, and for those children who must repeat a grade (e.g., repeating a grade is not “free”).
  • Labor force participation. Without affordable child care, parents reduce their hours or opt-out of the workforce. Ninety-four percent of workers involuntarily working part-time due to child care problems are women.[8] In North Carolina, 457,706 children under age 6 have working parents.[9] If one-third to one-half of these children under 6 are infants and toddlers, that’s 151,043 to 228,853 children who may need some type of child care while their parents work.
  • Employers & Employees. Employers depend on working parents. And, working parents with young children depend on some type of child care.

As the General Assembly meets to discuss budget priorities, child care assistance should be at the top of the list. Given the extraordinary cost of child care for infants and toddlers, the General Assembly may want to consider reviewing other models to support access to high-quality infant and toddler care.

In June 2018, the District of Columbia City Council unanimously passed the Birth to Three for All DC Act.[10] The legislation charts the path for a comprehensive system of supports for children’s healthy growth and development with a specific focus on services for families with infants and toddlers. The Act is broad — investing in home visiting and child developmental screening, however, with regard to child care for infants and toddlers, the Act expands child care subsidy eligibility for infants and toddlers to all families by 2027, caps the percentage of annual income a family would pay toward child care expenses at 10 percent of gross income by 2028, and phases in competitive compensation for early educators. The District is now in its second year of implementation with $16 million in funding for FY2020.[11] City Council members say it’s a high priority to increase funding as part of the 2021 budget, and work on that front is underway.[12]

There are certainly differences in passing legislation that supports a city (even a large city like Washington, D.C.) compared to a state. However, the concept is innovative. It recognizes that the cost of infant and toddler care is so high that all families may struggle with the cost. It recognizes that access to high-quality infant and toddler care is important to a child’s healthy development. And, it recognizes that a compensation strategy for the child care workforce is needed to support high-quality programs.

It is time to rethink the state’s approach to child care subsidy, and especially how families with infants and toddlers are supported in accessing high-quality child care. In the new year, let’s give thanks for what we have and think through policies that can best support our children in the future. 


[1] Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, Brain Architecture.

[2] Center for American Progress, America’s Child Care Deserts in 2018.

[3] Child Care Aware of America, The US and the High Price of Child Care: 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] NC Division of Child Development & Early Education: Subsidy Services.

[6] North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, June 7, 2019.

[7] NC Division of Child Development & Early Education: Star Rated License.

[8] Committee for Economic Development, Child Care in State Economies: 2019 Update.

[9] U.S. Census Bureau, Table B23008, Age of Own Children Under 18 Years in Families and Subfamilies by Living Arrangements by Employment Status of Parents, 2018 American Community Survey, 1 Year Estimates.

[10] B22-0203 – Infant and Toddler Developmental Health Services Act of 2017 (now known as “Birth-to-Three for All DC Act of 2018”).

[11] Significant Birth to Three Funding Passes in the DC Council, May 28, 2019.

[12] D.C. reaped benefits of expanded preschool. Now we must focus on even younger children.

By Marsha Basloe, President of CCSA

In May, the Program Evaluation Division[1] (PED) within the North Carolina General Assembly released a new report, “North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts.”[2]

PED was right – addressing the achievement gap requires much more attention to a child’s earliest years. While Pre-K expansion was recommended, research points to the birth to age 3 period of a child’s life as the time when the largest impact on a child’s development is possible. This period of early childhood must also be taken into account as we plan for the future for all NC families.

PED was charged with reviewing school districts nationwide with high poverty rates and at least average achievement by students to see if there were common strategies that could be used within North Carolina school districts. The project addressed three research questions,[3]

  1. What are the characteristics of school districts that have high percentages of economically disadvantaged students yet demonstrate high academic performance?
  2. What policies or practices are high-achieving disadvantaged districts implementing that may contribute to student performance?
  3. What policies or practices could North Carolina implement in order to improve performance in districts with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students?

The results were sobering. PED found that local school districts throughout the country struggled in attaining grade level or better student performance. In fact, PED identified only 5% of predominantly economically disadvantaged school districts that also had grade level or better student performance over a 7-year period.[4] Within North Carolina, 45 of 115 school districts were identified as predominantly economically disadvantaged, which is about 39% of North Carolina school districts.  Of those 45 school districts, only 7 (about 16%) met the bar of student performance at grade level (or above).[5]  While higher than the national average, 16% is nothing to boast about.

What PED found was that within economically disadvantaged school districts where students are performing well (at grade level or above), third grade is an important marker. Student growth occurs after 3rd grade but that efforts to address student competencies before grade 3 are most important in reducing the achievement gap.[6]

PED conducted interviews within 12 economically disadvantaged school districts (comparable to school districts within North Carolina) with grade level (or above) student performance to see if there were any common strategies that led to higher student outcomes. One of the factors that the 12 school districts had in common was a significant investment in public pre-kindergarten (pre-K).  Pre-K in two of the school districts (Durant Independent School District in Oklahoma and Steubenville City Schools in Ohio) target both three- and four-year-old children for enrollment. Four of the five North Carolina counties in which case study districts were located had 75% or more of eligible children participating in NC Pre-K.

However, PED notes that current funding enables only 47% of low-income eligible children statewide to participate in NC Pre-K.[7]

The PED report makes two recommendations.

Recommendation #1.  The General Assembly should require low-performing school districts to include an early childhood improvement plan as a component of their required plans for improvement.[8]  PED calls for the development of specific strategies aimed at boosting achievement from pre-K to 3rd grade and lists expanding pre-K, improving pre-K quality, ensuring alignment of pre-K curricula with elementary school curricula, developing transition plans, providing professional development that focuses on early learning and providing instructional coaching focused on pre-kK through 3rd grade.

Recommendation #2. The General Assembly should require an assessment of early childhood learning as part of the Department of Public Instruction’s comprehensive needs assessment process for districts.[9]

While those of us who have worked in the early childhood education field are glad to see the recommendations related to pre-K, and agree the NC Pre-K program should be fully-funded so all eligible children have an opportunity to participate, children are not born at age four.

Research shows that pre-K makes a difference in a child’s school readiness, particularly for low-income children. However, that same research also notes that a child’s gains in pre-K are directly related to his or her prior experiences before pre-K.[10]  

Neuroscience research shows that a child’s earliest years, from birth to age three, play a critical role in the development of brain wiring that lays a foundation for all future learning.[11]  In the first years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed every second.[12] 

Source: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

This wiring frames the architecture upon which all future abilities are built. While people learn throughout their lives, a child’s earliest years are critical because they set the foundation. Genes and experiences help shape a young child’s brain development,[13] which begin long before a child enters pre-K.  And, remediation strategies are much more difficult as children (and adults) age.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest data, throughout North Carolina:

  • 356,007 children are under age three[14]
  • 465,783 children are under age six who also have working parents (young children residing in two-parent families where both parents work or in a single-parent family where the head of household works)[15]

Young children with working mothers are in child care every week for about 36 hours according to the Census Bureau.[16]  Most of these children are not age four; they are not in pre-K. This is why any directive to the General Assembly to address the achievement gap, which rightly calls for addressing the early childhood landscape, has to not only focus on access to pre-K but also must focus on access to high-quality child care and the early childhood workforce that cares for our youngest children.

Child Care Services Association works locally with Think Babies™ NC and the leadership team as well as with national organizations on the importance of the prenatal to three years through. The Pritzker Children’s Initiative is dedicated to building a promising future for our country by focusing investment and support nationally in children at the earliest stages of life, particularly from birth to age three. Zero to Three and Child Trends just released the State of Babies Yearbook. North Carolina’s profile can be found here.

We applaud PED’s call for low performing school districts to include an early childhood improvement plan and an assessment of early learning opportunities as part of district comprehensive needs assessments. However, early learning is not limited to pre-K settings. High-quality child care programs are important early learning settings at all ages. Any needs assessment and early childhood improvement plans that are derived from such a landscape review must include our youngest children. Child development, school readiness and reducing the achievement gap depend on it.


[1] The Program Evaluation Division (PED) is a central, non-partisan unit of the Legislative Services Commission of the North Carolina General Assembly that assists the General Assembly in fulfilling its responsibility to oversee government functions.
[2] North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts, Final Report of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, Report #2019-06, May 20, 2019.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] National Institute of Early Education Research, Barriers to Expansion of NC Pre-K: Problems and Potential Solutions, 2018.      
[8] North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts, Final Report of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, Report #2019-06, May 20, 2019.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Foundation for Child Development, Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education. Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Christina Weiland, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Margaret R. Burchinal, Linda M. Espinosa, William T. Gormley, Jens Ludwig, Katherine A. Magnuson, Deborah Phillips, Martha J. Zaslow. (2013).
[11] Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. The Science of Early Childhood Development.
[12] Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. Brain Architecture.
[13] Ibid.
[14] U.S. Census Bureau, Table B09001, 2017 American Community Survey, 1 year estimates.
[15] U.S. Census Bureau, Table B23008, 2017 American Community Survey, 1 year estimates.
[16] U.S. Census Bureau, Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011, released April 2013.