Early education professionals are saying a “child care crisis” is underway in Tampa Bay.
Some of the most important years for a child’s social, emotional and language development occur before they enter grade school. More than 90% of a child’s brain will have developed by the time most enter kindergarten.
But early education opportunities have historically been poorly funded and underused, according to educators and business leaders at a recent panel discussion on childhood development. The pandemic has made the problem worse.
That has implications for future learning outcomes, but also for the economic health of a community.
Here’s what you should know.
Early education affects future opportunities
Nearly half of Tampa Bay area children are unprepared when they enter kindergarten, according to data from the state’s readiness assessment. That affects future learning.
“The better a child is prepared for kindergarten, the easier it is going to be for them to continue to climb the ladder,” said Ulas Butler, an early education specialist with United Way Suncoast. “Step A has to come before Step B. But if I never get Step A, I’ll never be ready for Step B.”
Early education programs aim to bolster a child’s readiness by providing learning opportunities during the first five years of life.
Research has found that access to early education improves graduation rates, as well as workforce readiness.
Low pay and high costs hurt the field
The cost of child care is prohibitive for many families. In the Tampa Bay region, the average cost of day care is higher than that of in-state tuition at the University of South Florida — with child care costing around $10,000 and tuition around $6,500 a year.
Still, early education professionals are some of the lowest earners in the workforce.
In the Tampa Bay region, early education teachers made an average of $30,650 in 2021, about $6,000 below the living wage for an individual.
“Wages are on par with grocery stores and fast food,” said Lindsay Carson, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County. “There’s certainly a labor of love, but without additional wages, it’s really hard to keep (employees).”
The result is a worker shortage.
Around 38% of Florida residents live in a child care desert, according to census data.
The pandemic has made the shortage worse. About a third of jobs were lost in the child care sector during the last two years, and many employees have not returned to the field.
“The pandemic set us back about 20 years in terms of number of employees in the (child care) workforce,” said Andrea Doggett, a United Way vice president.
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Businesses feel effects
The ripple effect is felt by the region’s business community, according to Bemetra Simmons, chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of regional business leaders.
When parents can’t afford child care, they’re forced to stay home with their kids instead of working, Simmons said.
In Florida alone, as many as 92,000 households reported that an adult left paid work to provide at-home child care, according to a March census survey. Thousands of others reported cutting hours.
That affects staffing across all industries, Simmons said, and makes it difficult for businesses to find workers, ultimately hampering the economy.
“This is both a local and a national issue,” Simmons said. “High demand from parents returning to their jobs, and fewer (numbers) of child care facilities and workers in there are exacerbating this problem.”
Filling the gaps
Across Florida, steps are being taken to fill the gaps.
In Pinellas County, for example, the Early Learning Coalition is working to attract more workers by providing training opportunities and signing and retention bonuses to people entering the workforce.
In Sarasota schools, officials have committed resources to family engagement for pre-kindergarten students, as well as developed a system to monitor child progress.
Still, experts emphasized a need for broader community and sustained financial investment from the public and private sector.
They also emphasized the importance of family engagement. They said creating awareness around available resources is critical, as is preparing parents to help their children learn at home.
“Parents play a critical role. Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher,“ Carson said. “Nothing replaces that interaction at home.”