Ahead of Shapiro’s budget, poll stresses funding for early child care | Thursday Morning Coffee

Eighty-five percent of providers said they face staffing shortages; blame low wages

By: - March 2, 2023 7:03 am
(Source: United Way of Pennsylvania, United Way of Bucks County, and ReadyNation.)

(Source: United Way of Pennsylvania, United Way of Bucks County, and ReadyNation.)

With Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first budget address now less than a week away, a new poll underlines the staffing shortage facing Pennsylvania’s child care providers and, advocates say, the need for policymakers to step up to help them.

Eighty-five percent of provider respondents to the poll commissioned by the advocacy groups Start Strong PA and Pre-K for PA said they face staffing shortages, while 50 percent said they’ve shuttered at least one classroom in response to the staffing gap.

In the meantime, providers need to fill nearly 4,000 open staffing positions, with more than 38,000 children statewide now on waiting lists for child care placements, according to the poll.

“One-hundred-and-twenty of our YMCA sites responded to the survey and the numbers are staggering,” David John,  the vice president of governmental affairs at the PA State Alliance of YMCAs, said in a statement. “Those programs have 382 open staffing positions that have caused the closure of 269 classrooms. Across 36 counties there are nearly 4,700 children on waiting lists. That means thousands of families without care.”

The new findings mirror a May 2022 poll, where 32,500 children were on waiting lists. Then, as now, advocates pointed to low wages as the main driver for the worker shortage.

“It is not surprising that this industry, with pay averaging less than $12.50/hr and 50% of professionals who work in it qualifying for government benefits, cannot compete for staff with other industries offering higher wages for less specialized skills,” the advocacy groups said in their statement.

More than 1,100 programs across 54 counties responded to the survey, the advocacy groups said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Commonwealth Media Services)

On the campaign trail last year, Shapiro spoke broadly about the need for “building opportunity” for all of the commonwealth’s students — from the very youngest to those about to graduate from high school.

Research has consistently shown that access to quality, early childhood education puts students on the path to a successful academic career, and can impact such factors as graduation rates and whether they experience the criminal justice system later in life.

That need has become particularly pressing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which “[erased] a decade of growth in preschool enrollment,” according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.

“We no longer can offer school-age care because of staffing. If we can’t get some help soon, I don’t know how long we can continue. Someone else just left our program to take a job in housekeeping at a local hospital night shift making $16/hr.” Jocelyn Kreig, the owner/director of Sunshine and Rainbows Child Care in Lackawanna County, said. “I can’t compete and there’s just not enough money to go around. Everyone is already working overtime and I am now the cook and relief staff along with being the director.”

Baby toddler early development. Wooden stack and count rainbow colors learning game. Child learn colors and numbers
(Getty Images)

The new survey, conducted between Jan. 31 and Feb. 12, also found that:

  • More than 30,000 additional children could be served at respondents’ sites if they were fully staffed.
  • Over 2,200 children currently sit on Pre-K Counts waiting lists.
  • Over 650 children currently sit on Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program waiting lists.

“Our early care and education programs need more than one-time funds to begin to solve this crisis. While we are thankful for the federal monies that have helped stabilize many programs, those funds are running out.  We must give this industry long-term resources,” Jen DeBell, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, said in a statement. “The partners of Start Strong PA believe that immediate and sustained action is required to boost pay for Pennsylvania’s child care teachers and staff to stem this tide of closures and wait lists.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.