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Shortage of child care options prompts new NC legislation

Colin Campbell
Forsyth County mom Daphne Alsiyao, right, and her eight-month-old daughter Ella Rose, joined lawmakers and business leaders Thursday for a news conference promoting legislation to address the child care shortage.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers filed several new bills on Thursday to address the shortage of child care options in North Carolina.

They held a news conference with parents, child care center directors and business leaders. Daphne Alsiyao, who works for the nonprofit North Carolina Partnership for Children, said she recently moved to the Winston-Salem area and hasn’t been able to find a child care center that has room for her eight-month-old daughter Ella Rose.

Every center she calls has a long waiting list. She’s already given up on finding an affordable option, with many programs costing more than $1,200 a month. That means she has to work from home with Ella Rose at her side.

“I feel like I’m not 100% there for my job, I’m not 100% there for her," Alsiyao said. "It’s definitely a challenge trying to juggle it all.”

Michele Miller Cox runs First Presbyterian Day School, a child care center in Raleigh. She says a shortage of teachers will only get worse when federal COVID funding runs out later this year.

“The child care industry was already broken before the pandemic struck, but now we are on the verge of crumbling," Cox said. "We are facing unprecedented teacher shortages, lack of availability for parents, and high costs at every level.”

One of the bills introduced Thursday would put more than $200 million toward subsidies for child care centers. Another bill would fund $300 million in additional grants to child care centers.

A third bill would create a new program to split the cost of childcare with employers. Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, is a sponsor.

“Tri-Share is a model that has businesses, families and the state tri-sharing the costs of child care, and we will be putting forth to start that in three counties as a pilot program and learn from it," Clemmons said.

The plan has the support of the North Carolina Chamber, the state’s main business lobby. The group’s lobbyist, Debra Derr, says there’s also a need to update the regulations that child care centers face.

"We believe it is time to reimagine this critical infrastructure," Derr said. "Solutions such as private-public partnerships and modernization of regulations that do not undermine safety and quality must be considered."

The latter proposal would extend a COVID-era pause on the "star" rating system used to evaluate child care centers. That's a program that rates centers on criteria such as how many teachers hold college degrees; it's separate from centers' regular health and safety inspections.

The "star" rating process wouldn't resume until the N.C. Child Care Commission recommends changes to the system next year.

"They haven't been looked at in decades," Clemmons said of the standards. "It's time to look at those and reform them."

Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate said the proposals have support from legislative leaders. Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, and Rep. David Willis, R-Union, are co-sponsoring the bills as part of their work with Clemmons, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, and the legislature's early childhood caucus.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.