A Broken Link: Early childhood education is ripe for reform

January welcomes the reopening of high schools and, while pandemic precautions remain very important, we can applaud the return of in-person instruction.

Parents, teachers and administrators recognize the significant social, emotional and educational benefits kids get from actually being in the classroom. Though the return of K-12 instruction is great news for school-age kids and their families, the new year brings a daunting and worsening situation in pre-K early childhood programs for our youngest children.

Like quality school instruction, quality child care is very important for the health and cognitive development of our kids. Child care prepares children for success in school and work life. These programs form a critical part of our economy’s infrastructure.

Dependable, affordable day care allows parents with young children to be an active part of the labor market. But as we move past the pandemic and ramp up the economy, working parents face an acute shortage of quality child care options.

COVID-19 has exacerbated already existing challenges in the child care system. Providers operate under dangerously narrow margins driven by unsustainable funding models and excessively complex regulations. Without intervention, this alarming trend could have serious impacts on existing care providers and dangerous ripple effects throughout the labor market.

The early childhood education system was broken before the pandemic; getting back to where we were pre-COVID is not good enough. We have an opportunity to rebuild the child care system stronger than it was before by advocating for policy improvements and investing in this critical infrastructure. Leadership for change must come from public and private leaders working together.

There is already positive momentum in our region. The new partnership between United Way, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District and the Great Start Collaborative brings together local expertise and leaders committed to finding new and innovative ideas. This joint effort can inform state policy makers as they address the pressing needs of the child care industry.

The first step is to reform outdated state regulations and overly complex licensing requirements, which can be accomplished with no additional funding burden on the state budget. Lawmakers and state regulators can work to reduce multi-use building restrictions, streamline the child care subsidy billing process, and simplify the requirements for substitute training and placements.

Lansing should also encourage innovation by simplifying the process for child care startups, permit licensing to prequalify facilities and allow local governments flexibility and control to offer tuition scholarships.

Regulatory reform is crucial, but it may not be enough. As we have learned, child care workers are essential, yet staffing is the most difficult challenge to child care operations because of low compensation. Workers can earn better pay and benefits in fast food service – with less stress. Meanwhile, these employees are required to earn expensive credentials that have little or no impact on their future earnings. This situation is unsustainable without significant changes to the compensation model.

Child care providers are strapped for cash and a first step could be to reduce or subsidize the state-mandated costs associated with onboarding a new employee. Officials should also consider raising the level for Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention subsidies and the per-child rate, as well as funding the creation of public/private incubators and pilot programs. Additional steps could include providing no- or low-cost loans to child care startups and to help providers when they face required facilities improvements.

Michigan and the Grand Traverse region have an opportunity to jump-start the economic recovery by implementing child care reforms and developing new solutions. Addressing the complex challenges of the early childhood ecosystem represents a crucial component of our post-pandemic economic recovery and a key determinant of our future success.

Quality child care is good for kids and families – and critical for the economy to function. Ensuring the quality and availability of these programs is an investment in the long-term health of our economy.

Warren Call is the president/CEO of Traverse Connect, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North. Contact him at warren.call@traverseconnect.org.