Day cares are losing educators to higher paying jobs. Owners say it’s creating a crisis in Texas.
Just minutes before she testified before budget writers at the State Capitol on Tuesday, Tracy Hanson received a text message that was as frustrating as it was timely.
Hanson, the owner and director of Education Connection Preschool and Child Care Solutions in Killeen, was told she had just lost another employee.
“I received a text as I am sitting here that one of my employees left today for Buc-ees for $16 an hour,” she told the committee, referring to the gas station and country store chain.
Hanson was one of several child care advocates and industry representatives who asked the Texas Senate Finance Committee to consider tapping into the state budget to help bolster the state’s child care and early education systems as some struggle to hire or keep employees. The testimony came during discussion of the proposed 2024-2025 budget for the Texas Workforce Commission, which distributes grant monies to qualified schools and child care centers.
“Unfortunately, we cannot produce more merchandise to sell, increase food sales or work longer hours to fix our wage concerns when payroll is based solely on tuition and our community cannot afford to pay higher rates,” she said.
Adding to the urgency is that federal monies that were part of a massive federal COVID relief program will be gone after the current year. More than $3.4 billion in federal funding was approved and distributed by the Texas Workforce Commission after the pandemic hit Texas, according to TWC data.
“The money that we obtained from the [Texas Workforce Commission] is the only thing we feel kept our heads above water,” said Jeannie Herring, the owner and operator of two child care centers. “Without continued workforce subsidies many centers, including myself, will be forced to eventually, permanently close.”
Ahead of the hearing, Texans Care for Children, an advocacy group whose focus areas include education, child care, juvenile justice, mental and maternal and child health, submitted a letter signed by nearly 200 businesses asking Gov. Greg Abbott and other lawmakers to take seriously the issue of funding child care this legislative session as doing so only would help the state’s economic standing.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated in 2022 that the lack of affordable child care costs Texas employers up to $7.59 billion per year in terms of increased turnover, increased hiring costs, and lost productivity due to their employees missing work to care for children,” the letter states. “The Chamber report clearly demonstrates that one of the best ways to ensure our continued momentum and economic strength is to invest in quality, affordable child care.”
David Feigen, the director of early learning policy at Texans Care for Children, said the issue can be summed up with simple math.
“Programs cannot afford to be bringing in less than they’re making, teachers cannot afford to be making less than they’re making, parents cannot afford to pay any more than they’re already paying,” he told the committee. “The solution is an investment, this session, and you have the incredible opportunity to do it.”
After the hearing, Feigen told The Texas Newsroom that the total investment they’d like budget writers to include is in excess of $2 billion, about half of which would go toward replacing the federal Covid relief aid.
“About half would go to sustainability grants to replace federal grants that are going away, that help programs meet their fixed costs, things like personnel, but also things like rising food costs due to rising utility bills, all the different things that are a struggle for providers,” he said. “And then around the other half or so is going towards recruitment and retention bonuses directly to child care educators.”
The budget hearings come as the state is looking at an estimated $33 billion budget surplus. When asked if Texas Republicans, who have traditionally sought to be known as fiscal conservatives, will be receptive to their requests, Feigen said he was optimistic.
“They are far more receptive than they've ever been to this kind of conversation. I think the child care policy has often been at the periphery of the attention of lawmakers, and that's really starting to change and the pandemic had a big impact on that,” he said.
The budget-writing process is in the early stages at the Capitol, but Feigen said lawmakers can expect similar testimony when the House Appropriations Committee hears testimony on the Texas Workforce Commission’s budget request in the coming weeks.
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