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Solutions sought to improve child care availability, affordability in Pa.

Mar. 12—MARLIN — Child care advocates and providers in Pennsylvania on Monday urged government investment in early learning as they say low pay is a big factor in the industry's deterioration.

The state's average annual salary for a teacher at a day care was $25,844, according to a 2023 report from Children First PA. The advocacy group found that the earnings of child care workers fail to cover the cost of living in all 67 counties.

The teaching position requires a bachelor's degree and Pennsylvania has the notoriety of being among the nation's costliest for higher education where loan debt averaged nearly $40,000 for college graduates.

Testimony about the state of child care during a hearing of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania stressed that enhanced investments in child care will directly benefit Pennsylvania's economy.

"If families do not have access to quality child care, they cannot work, they cannot progress at work. We have a substantial impact on the workforce," Andrea Heberlein, executive director, Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission, said. "If you don't have that qualified workforce, the whole system falls apart."

The average cost for child care is $11,800 for infants and $9,700 for 4-year-olds, according to Heberlein. She said insufficient child care causes Pennsylvania's economy to lose $6.5 billion annually.

"The availability of child care is critical. If you have child care perhaps that person can enter the workforce," state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Union/Lycoming/Bradford/Sullivan/Tioga, said.

Partner organizations of the Start Strong PA campaign for early childhood education conducted a survey in early 2023 and found approximately 4,000 vacancies in child care statewide. About 85% of programs had staffing shortages and half had closed at least one classroom due to lack of staffing.

Dr. Leah Spangler, president and CEO of The Learning Lamp and Ignite Education Solutions in western Pennsylvania, said the starting wage for an entry-level worker at her company's facilities is about $9 hourly. Yet, she said, 80% of income at centers goes toward payroll and taxes. She said her company has 97 job openings and 546 children on a waiting list.

Raising the cost to families to make up the difference isn't an option, she said. Meanwhile, she said employees leave the industry for jobs at retail outlets and fast food chains that pay $15 hourly or more.

"They simply cannot charge families what it would take to pay those workers fair wages. We need an investment from the commonwealth to help us to be able to compete with other industries in our community," Spangler said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro's 2024-25 budget proposal seeks multiple spending increases on early childhood education: nearly $30 million more for care subsidies for low-income families through the Child Care Works program; $32.5 million more for preschool programs through Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts; and $2.7 million more for Head Start Supplemental Assistance.

The effort projects to add tens of thousands of children to child care programs across the commonwealth. As it stands, there simply aren't enough programs to accommodate children eligible for child care.

The state average is 1.7 children per 1 child care slot. The Center for Rural Pennsylvania found 19 counties have 3 or more children for every available slot.

Heberlein highlighted solutions in other states to potentially model. She spoke of a public-private partnership in Michigan where employers, employees and state government split costs.

Another program in Kentucky provides matching dollars from the state toward employer contributions to child care for their workers. And, she spoke of 14 states and Washington D.C. where universal pre-K is enacted.

"I think universal pre-K is certainly a model we need to look to enact," state Sen. Judith Schwank, D-Berks, said.