Health-care access, educational inequities, racial disparities, workers’ rights: COVID-19 in the United States has brought new urgency to these issues, and more. That’s the nature of a crisis: it exposes and exacerbates flaws in our systems, pushes support structures to the brink, and forces us to see even more clearly where we need to do better.
Early learning and child-care professionals know this well. They serve families across income brackets, giving parents the ability to go to work and children the early learning experiences they need for a strong start in kindergarten and life. Yet despite their important role, many child-care providers are struggling to stay afloat in a system with cracks that have been papered over for too long.
Under Pennsylvania’s social distancing measures, most child-care providers have been required to close, losing income from families’ payments. This has put many high-quality programs at risk of shutting down permanently. In the short term, the William Penn Foundation and the Vanguard Strong Start for Kids Program have created an emergency fund at Reinvestment Fund to help early learning organizations sustain their businesses through the closure period. Individuals and organizations who wish to support early learning are encouraged to contribute.
But the real child-care sector “emergency” has been around for decades. Ask child-care providers what they need right now, and many of the answers are what they’ve been for years: increased public funding, livable wages, investment in the workforce pipeline, recognition of their expertise and importance, access to affordable legal guidance and professional services, and better systems to communicate with state and local child-care officials.
For an industry that cares for and educates our youngest children during years of critical brain development, we’ve got to address these needs. In Philadelphia, we’ve been making progress for several years. Many partners — government, early learning providers, nonprofits, philanthropy, higher education, neighborhood groups, and families — are collaborating to improve child-care program quality and strengthen finances. We have seen the supply of high-quality child care increase from meeting 21% of demand in 2014 to nearly 30% in 2019. Without serious attention, the pandemic puts Philadelphia at risk of losing tremendous progress.
Due to chronic underfunding, child-care providers operate on razor-thin financial margins. Without access to flexible and affordable capital — during and after this crisis — there is a real risk that talented and capable early learning professionals will be pushed out of the sector by unexpected expenses, such as facility repairs or revenue reductions.
To help address this, the William Penn Foundation and Vanguard have worked with leading nonprofit organizations in recent years to create complementary supports for high-quality child-care providers, including: a revolving loan fund providing very-low-interest loans, a pair of funds to help organizations expand to serve more children (the Fund for Quality) and sustain operations (the Fund for Sustaining Quality), and a Fiscal Hub to gather financial data and improve stability with resources, technical assistance, and policy advancement.
These are just some examples of what partners have done to ensure that our child-care professionals have the support they need to give children the education they deserve. We are grateful for the collaboration and work in the years before the pandemic hit. These efforts strengthened the sector and improved families’ access to high-quality early learning programs. Yet, child-care organizations continue to exist in a precarious position.
This crisis has exacerbated issues that our city has been working to address for years, but there is more to be done. We all must act now — advocate for early childhood education, thank a teacher, contribute resources, time, and expertise to build the early learning sector — and continue to act when this plague has passed.
Elliot Weinbaum is the program director of the William Penn Foundation’s Great Learning grant program. Rashanda Perryman co-leads the Strong Start for Kids program at Vanguard.