Demand for early childhood education has grown in recent years. Last year, the county created 108 new “slots” for early learning through public/private partnerships in four facilities. But waiting lists remain long. One of the four venues, a new classroom at the Lonnie D. Burton Child Development Center, did not open for want of teachers.
Not only is the need increasing as 40 percent of children are now born to unwed mothers, standards for childcare are growing more demanding. Brian Repass of Community Action Opportunities explained people generally, “don’t think of caring for children as having to deal with this … complex regulatory environment.” Whereas decades ago, babysitting would suffice, now, teachers must adhere to safety codes while providing high-quality education, following curricula, and recording progress data.
The teachers themselves must have a four-year degree. When Commissioner Joe Belcher shared that his company and the Candler YMCA had figured out how to make daycare available without tax subsidy, protests of, “But are they licensed?!” erupted throughout the room.
This followed stories about the credentialing barrier. Repass said he had had three vacancies, conducted seven interviews, offered six jobs, and had one person accept. Two did not accept because they were teachers with 20 and 30 years’ experience, and they did not want to go back to school to get credentialed for Pre-K. Dawn Meskil, director of Asheville City Schools Preschool, told of a lady who wanted to be a preschool administrator. She had 20 years’ experience and had to take a course she had taught to be qualified. Another story was told of a small center that had to hire an extra person just to manage vouchers.
The county’s Director of Strategic Partnerships Rachael Nygaard said the state uses a five-star rating system based on point scales for program standards, like student/teacher ratios, class size, operational policies, and funding sources; and staff education, which considers credentialing, experience, and course work. NC Pre-K, she said, was the gold standard, and some federally-funded Head Start programs were a close second.
Compensation was deemed a major reason for the shortage of people willing to pursue a four-year degree in early childhood education. But some in the room suggested exposing children to the career path at an early age could cultivate passion before, others jested, they learn about financial literacy.
UNC Asheville’s Dean of Social Sciences Jeff Konz, speaking for musicians, said, “Passion won’t pay the rent.” He has a Ph.D. in economics, and he said acquiring the skills to be an effective early childhood educator was overpriced and undervalued. He cautioned those in the room not to compensate qualified teachers so well it raises the cost of providing the service out of the reach of the low-income families who need the programs most.
Konz was among those to speak of a vicious cycle. He said Eastern Tennessee State University did offer a program at UNC Asheville years ago, but not many students were interested. So, when the instructor took a job elsewhere, it was difficult for leadership to justify filling the vacancy. The closest training programs are now at Western Carolina and Appalachian State universities.
Meskil told how difficult it was for passionate people already in the field to earn and renew a license. This year, 42 hours of training were required. If teachers couldn’t take all classes online, they had to take time off work to commute. But they don’t earn enough to afford time off. All staff must be trained, but a school can’t close for teacher work days because if an early childcare center closes more than fifteen days a year, it will be “penalized.” What’s more, if a substitute works more than ten days in any center, that substitute must have as much training as the fulltime permanent teachers.
Large employers; namely, Mission Health and the Biltmore Company, were targeted as not only needing to help with childcare for their employees; at least one person wanted government to use its power of the pump to redistribute their wealth to a community childcare fund. County Manager Mandy Stone said the county had already dedicated funds from its economic development budget toward supporting Pre-K.
Commissioner Al Whitesides expressed frustration over twenty years of talk as kids fall through the proverbial cracks. Then, the meeting closed with Nygaard saying, “To be continued, right?”