ST. PETERSBURG — In Florida, preschool can cost more than college tuition.
This seems backward, considering that many scholars and teachers see the impact of early childhood education as the key to end poverty.
"You would think that we would invest earlier to have a better investment long-term," said Jackie Lang, the owner of Imagination Station Daycare in St. Petersburg.
The average annual cost of childcare in Florida is $8,694, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That’s $725 per month. For families in Midtown, which has the highest concentration of poverty in Pinellas County, many could be forced to choose between childcare and rent.
City officials have said they’ve tried to improve economic growth and development in this part of the city for years, but nothing seems to stick. But some of them are working to address early childhood education as a solution.
Maria Scruggs, president of St. Petersburg’s chapter of the NAACP, said she’s been lobbying city officials to prioritize early childhood education for years.
"It’s not a buzzword or a quick fix," Scruggs said. "You’re talking about building a capacity for the people and if you’re not building the capacity for the people, it’s not going to be sustained."
St. Petersburg’s redevelopment plan for Midtown has listed education as a goal for the past few years, but officials say the real changes are expected to launch this fall.
Early childhood education facilities make up the majority of local businesses within the Community Redevelopment Agency district, which spans from east to west from Third Street to 49th Street, and north to south from Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S. That includes 53 centers and 83 self-employed providers that work from home, according to the Pinellas County Licensing Board.
With the upcoming round of grant-awarding, city officials could target both in one swoop. But based on the grants that the city has awarded, early childhood education centers are disproportionately missing. City officials say this is because grant applications aren’t complete or childcare providers just aren’t applying for city funding.
So city officials are taking other routes this fall to more directly target Midtown’s gaps: a new program to teach childcare providers business acumen and focus groups for families.
But right now, there’s a problem. It’s what the CEO of the Pinellas County Early Learning Coalition, Lindsay Carson, calls market failure. Childcare is expensive, providers aren’t paid enough and there isn’t enough funding to subsidize either end.
Carson said Florida is ranked 43rd in state spending for early learning for 4-year-olds, but it’s ranked second in access. So there are plenty of facilities, but not enough that are meeting all the needs of the kids.
And it rates lower in low-income communities like Midtown, which receives the most state funding for early childhood education in Pinellas, because of a disproportionate lack of opportunity, Carson said.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than 90 percent of childcare workers in the majority of Florida’s metro areas don’t make enough money to afford the basic cost of living.
In Florida, childcare workers make an average of $10.73 an hour, or $22,330 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Carson said the cost for childcare has decreased since the early 2000s, which means lower wages for providers that aren’t in tune with inflation. The city could work to offset those costs, but Carson said right now, state and local investments don’t reflect the significance that early childhood education has on families and communities.
"The providers are really working hard," she said. "But you can only do so much."
The city’s business incubator, Greenhouse, will offer a new program this fall for early learning providers to develop their business acumen, funded by the CRA plan’s dollars.
The curriculum will teach two representatives from eight early learning centers how to manage financial books, market, use a balance sheet, implement a business plan, with in-classroom teaching.
Who will run it isn’t disclosed yet, said Leah McRae, the city’s director of education and community development. But the program will run for 12 to 16 weeks and participants will receive a stipend for their center upon completion.
This month, the ELC will also launch focus groups with families in communities including South St. Petersburg to better understand their needs for kindergarten readiness.
McRae said the city is looking into subsidizing parents to help with preschool costs and encouraging businesses to be more family-friendly.
St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor and city manager, Kanika Tomalin, said the city recognizes the need to focus on early learning because of its impact on children and working parents.
"So much of the social determinant of poverty, health, educational attainment and other determinants of quality of life are rooted in those early years," Tomalin said. "The exposure that young people get or not get really set the stage for the tone for achievement later in life."
Carson said it also plays a significant role in developing soft skills. Children who receive quality early learning are also less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, have higher graduation rates and higher earnings later on, and their parents are more likely to have a more engaging business environment with less absenteeism, she said.
Tomalin said the city has reviewed St. Petersburg elementary schools that have been historically challenged. She said she’s seen a correlation between the students that come from feeder preschools and those who didn’t have access to early learning.
Lang was previously a public school kindergarten teacher and she confirmed those differences.
"You can really tell the children that have had access to quality care, the children that have been in care, and those that haven’t," she said. "Unless we invest in children early on, third grade is far too late."
Carson said that a 2014 ELC review found "childcare deserts" where children weren’t receiving quality education, so they set up a pilot project based on to fund teachers and providers receive a bachelor’s degree and other accreditation from local academic partners like St. Petersburg College.
McRae said in the past they’ve struggled to find providers to sign up. Florida doesn’t require providers to have licenses, just hours of experience. Since statistically, many of these teachers are low-income, they often can’t afford to take time off from work for training. But Carson said this training increases early learning teachers’ wages by 20 percent.
Scruggs said she’s witnessed city money wasted in trying to "fix South St. Petersburg," rather than taking a strategic approach to support the talent and skills that already exist there.
She said she’s seen a pattern of locally owned early learning facilities in Midtown, including those operating out of their homes or in faith communities, that struggle to keep up with the changing policies and have to transfer ownership.
"We do know that our providers ...are sometimes challenged in terms of resources," Carson said. "One of the things we do here at the ELC is we really invest in some of our struggling and high-need communities to help level that playing field."
Contact Hannah Denham at [email protected] Follow @hannah_denham1.