'I don't want to go back to the struggle': Austin child care providers brace for end of COVID aid
Signs at the Nehemiah Christian School encourage reading and “dramatic play.” Weavings and other artwork dot the walls, while plants with lush green leaves spill over terracotta planters.
Children sit around a small table facing Tamitha Blackmon, who runs this child care program out of her home in Far East Austin. She points to a wooden calendar and asks the kids to tell her the year and the month. They enthusiastically reply: "2023!" and "September!"
Blackmon was a third-grade teacher before opening the Nehemiah Christian School 10 years ago.
"The reason I came and dropped down to preschool, infants, toddlers and all of that is because I saw a reading deficit in teaching third grade," she said. "So, I thought: Why not lay the foundation?"
The Nehemiah Christian School has the highest rating possible — four stars — from the Texas Rising Star Program, which evaluates child care centers and registered child care home facilities that are part of the Texas Workforce Commission’s subsidized child care program. But Blackmon said making high-quality child care affordable is nearly impossible these days. Providers are contending with inflation and high property taxes. They also face thin profit margins because what families can afford to pay doesn't cover the cost of running this type of business.
“Saying we offer high-quality child care that’s affordable — those just don’t go together at all,” she said.
To keep child care affordable for the families she serves, Blackmon said she must pay employees less and, often, not pay herself at all. But that changed for awhile during the pandemic, when the federal government invested billions of relief dollars to keep child care facilities afloat.
“I was able to give my employee some COVID pay; I was able to give him a raise, which made things a lot easier for him to pay his bills because he has a family,” she said. “I was able to start paying myself something, so it made it a lot easier.”
But that federal aid is running out, and child care providers — and the families who rely on them — face an uncertain future. Blackmon already received the last payment for her program. She said she’ll be able to stay open, but she expects other providers to shut down.
“I know that there will be some closures and that will have an impact on the facilities that remain open," she said. "They’ll probably be at capacity and parents will not be able to find child care right away.”
Child care undervalued
Earlier this year, providers and advocates urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to invest in child care in anticipation of pandemic relief ending in September.
They called on Texas lawmakers, who had a nearly $33 billion budget surplus, to increase state funding for child care by $2.29 billion. They didn't.
David Feigen, the director of early learning policy at Texans Care for Children, said the end of federal funding without an infusion of new state dollars leaves providers at a crossroads.
“They’re going to have to decide: Do I have to raise costs on the parents I’m serving? Do I have to lay off some staff that I can’t afford to keep? Am I going to have to close classrooms or am I going to have to close my program altogether?" he said. "Because they don’t have any funding to spare."
“We’re not babysitters; we’re early educators. We’re the kids’ doctors, we’re the kids’ nurses, we’re psychologists, we’re teachers, we’re their second moms.”Patsy Harnage, child care provider
Blackmon testified before the state Legislature about the importance of increasing funding for child care, especially as pandemic dollars run out. She told lawmakers every single one of them would be affected in some way if child care centers closed.
They did not heed those concerns.
“Sometimes you can be so far removed from things that you don’t even think about the day-to-day realities of it, and I think that’s what’s happening,” she said. “Especially if they don’t have children in child care.”
Patsy Harnage, who runs a child care center in North Austin, said she thinks another reason lawmakers did not increase funding for providers is that people fundamentally misunderstand what they do.
“We’re not babysitters and I think that’s the concept that they have," she said. "We’re not babysitters; we’re early educators. We’re the kids’ doctors, we’re the kids’ nurses, we’re psychologists, we’re teachers, we’re their second moms.”
Harnage started Bright Beginnings, which also has a four-star rating from the state, in 2013. Her center serves more than 130 kids. She decided to launch the business after seeing a story on the news about high dropout rates.
“I determined that I needed to make a difference," she said. "I needed to go out there, and I need to help these children, give them the tools that they need, to have a love of learning."
Like Blackmon, she saw early childhood education as the way to set kids up for success in K-12 and beyond. Research also shows early learning increases the likelihood kids stay in school and attend college.
But, Harnage said, child care is a tough business to be in.
“If you’re going to get in this business you have to love children and families, because you’re not going to get rich doing this."
Harnage primarily serves families who use subsidies, but she and Blackmon say the state’s reimbursement rate falls below the actual cost of providing care. Harnage said that’s one of the reasons the pandemic relief funding was such a godsend. It helped her keep Bright Beginnings open and increase employee pay by about 20%. It also allowed her to finally pay herself.
She’s not sure she can sustain those wages anymore.
“At this point, if there’s no more funding to come through, those same teachers that are high quality that I can pay well — like school district rates — I’m afraid I’m going to have to lay them off,” she said. “And that’s heartbreaking, because this program is built on high quality and those teachers are great.”
To retain staff, she said, she’d have to look at raising rates.
“Ninety percent of my families are subsidized, so that’s going to be very hard for them,” she said. “And I’m afraid that some of my families may have to leave the workforce.”
Harnage said she wants to expand her business and serve more children, not cut staff.
“I don’t want to go back to the way I was. I don’t want to go back to the struggle. So I hope and pray that the legislatures, state and federal, open their eyes,” she said.
A ripple effect
While child care advocates say the end of pandemic relief won’t prompt closures overnight, the impact will be widespread. The Texas Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed about 1,700 providers last month to see how they expect to fare without any more federal funding. Executive Director Cody Summerville said 26% reported they are likely or very likely to close, while 43% said they aren’t sure.
Summerville said the question is hard to answer for many providers because their businesses are not only personal, but also serve as the heart of their communities.
“‘Am I going to have to close my small business?’ is a really emotional question to answer,” he said. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that [26%] is probably a conservative estimate.”
About 15% of child care providers in Travis County said they are likely or very likely to close with pandemic funding ending; 48% said they are not sure if they’ll be able to stay open.
More than a third of the providers surveyed in the Austin area will have to cut wages, reduce staff and serve fewer children. Eighty percent have already raised or plan to raise tuition.
Any increase in cost will be especially challenging for families in Travis County, which has among the highest child care costs in Texas, according to federal data.
Cathy McHorse, vice president of Success by 6 at United Way for Greater Austin, said if providers in the Austin area have to close, that capacity can’t be replaced.
“The supply we have is not sufficient to cover our needs. We’ve got to protect the supply we have and think of new ways to build more capacity,” she said. “But I do fear it’s going to be too easy for people to ignore unless they’re facing it in the moment.”
McHorse said some child care providers will be more vulnerable than others after relief funding runs out. During the pandemic, licensed and registered homes, which are often run by women of color, were the most likely to close.
"We also anticipate those will have the most closures," she said.
Blackmon pointed out that child care providers will not be the only ones impacted if they can’t afford to stay open.
“If this workforce crumbles, then the rest of the workforce will start to crumble,” she said.