Early Childcare Investment Policy Initiative
Partnership to bring scalable child care solution to Erie
A crisis in the child care industry is proving to be a universal issue as parents struggle to work without care for their children. The predicament has caused officials to see child care as economic development, and in the City of Erie, a network of advocates is getting down to business.
On Wednesday, the Jefferson Educational Society (JES) announced the launch of its Early Childcare Investment Policy Initiative, supported by grant funding from The Erie Community Foundation.
Research shows that access to quality, affordable child care is directly linked to the well being of Erie's families, communities, workforce, and future. A team of policy experts led by Erie-based consultant Court Gould will assess Erie's child care challenges and propose recommendations for practical remedies to confront the nationwide crisis on a local level.
"JES, in its role as a driver of community progress, will engage those who are invested in Erie's progress in exploring the power of early child care with its many positive ripple effects through a team of policy experts our think tank has contracted with thanks to the generous support of The Erie Community Foundation," Dr. Ferki Ferati, JES president, said of the initiative.
Known as the "workforce behind the workforce," child care has long struggled for sustainable solutions, and the commonwealth is losing out on an exponential amount of money each year, exacerbated by the pandemic.
In 2023, the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission partnered with Ready Nation to update Pennsylvania's child care economic impact report and found that the negative impacts of insufficient child care have increased over time, from $3.47 billion to now $6.65 billion in annual lost earnings, productivity, and tax revenue.
"As is the case with any community, Erie's economy and the success of individual companies depend on working families, and working families depend on child care," Gould said. "If parents don't have access to it, they can't get to work. All is not well in this economic sector. The child care system is not adequately supporting our workforce, and thus, our economy."
In 2021, JES published a report by Gould, who warned of the dire implications the city could face if the crisis continued unchecked. In 2023, JES's Civic Leadership Academy (JCLA) cohort researched the issue, and the group's findings aligned with the rest of the state and country.
For parents, lack of access to affordable child care, let alone any child care without a waitlist, remains an issue. For child care centers, challenges are lack of staffing, high staff turnover, and the inability to maintain a high quality of care at their facilities due to the stringent guidelines imposed on centers with little funding to support them.
In Erie County this past year, 18 child care providers reported 90 open staffing positions, resulting in 29 closed classrooms and 1,732 children on waiting lists.
Patrick Herr, vice president of community involvement at The Erie Community Foundation, announces on Wednesday an initiative with the Jefferson Educational Society. (Contributed photo)
How can Erie find a solution?
The first step to finding a solution is to get a realistic picture of the problem on a local level. Gould says a lot of data exists at the state and county level, but not hyperlocal. For this initiative, the team will focus on the City of Erie.
"Good policy has to follow good data and also has to follow what is possible," Gould said. "The child care system really is complex. It's fraught with lots of opinions, and it also remarkably has a lack of data at the city, let alone the neighborhood, level."
He said that making data-informed decisions increases the likelihood that one of the solutions they implement will make a difference. Then, other municipalities in the county could replicate those solutions as applicable.
The team will focus on children from birth to 3 years old as that is arguably the most formative time period in a child's development, as noted by the broad-based coalition Early Learning Pennsylvania (ELPA).
Not only is the child care system impacting the current workforce, but a lack of care for children in a crucial developmental stage could cause further issues as the children grow older, making it a prime window for investment.
Phase one: Quantify the problem
Over the next six months, Gould and his team will take on a series of incremental tasks to get a picture of Erie's child care landscape. They will look to quantify the demand, supply, and gaps in access to child care in Erie.
Gould says it's essential to understand the story behind the stats.
For example, there may be fully-staffed child care providers, but if their staff has a high level of turnover, the problem remains.
Acknowledging the problems in a hyperlocal environment makes the solution scalable.
Most "bandages" or temporary solutions are for education in general, not just child care, so help from the state is not always as helpful as intended.
Gov. Josh Shapiro's 2024-25 budget proposal this week was applauded by the education community as hopefully ambitious, with the largest single-year increase in basic education funding the commonwealth has ever seen. It would invest $10 million in recruiting and maintaining educators in the workforce.
ELPA released a statement claiming that inadequate wages across the early care and education sector are causing Pre-K classrooms to close and that recruitment efforts typically result in public schools benefiting rather than child care centers. It says this is because early care educators earn roughly half of their K-5 counterparts in public schools and face the tough choice of staying in their chosen profession as wages and benefits increase across other sectors.
Sarah Morrison, member of the JCLA cohort, said low wages and lack of benefits were the No. 1 issue within the region, stemming largely from a lack of funding.
"It's tough to support a family or even yourself on a child care worker's salary," she said. "In our research, we could cite the fact that there's no way to solve one [child care issue] without solving it all, and funding is truly the largest issue there."
In addition to staffing demands and funding, the initiative team will pay special attention to those child care deserts in Erie, or those places with little access to child care.
Gould said it's one thing to have a booming child care sector, but it needs to be accessible, too.
Phase two: Identify the most impactful ways to intervene
After quantifying the challenges, the team must decide which well-informed leap of faith will get them the farthest. Those solutions could range from increasing caregiver pay to building more child care centers, providing financial assistance to centers or parents, helping centers maintain their high-quality status, or increasing the amount of second- and third-shift care providers.
Each member of the team provides a unique viewpoint. For example, Tiffany LaVette, founder of Her P.O.W.E.R. Inc, which owns and operates ABC 24-Hour Childcare on State Street, is a member of the team who could inform care decisions.
With a sizable manufacturing and industrial workforce in Erie, parents who work second or third shifts may struggle to find child care available in the late hours of the night — something ABC is able to provide.
"Most parents have weathered many sleepless nights with their infants and also have laid awake worrying about finding safe, enriching, and affordable care," Gould commented. "Good luck if that parent works a second- or third-shift job, which is a real driver of our economy in the city, as care for those hours is even more scarce."
As finding and keeping good teachers in the system is already a challenge, finding ones that will work in the middle of the night is even more difficult.
That is just one example of how the Erie-specific research will help the team make informed decisions on how to move forward. Other members of the team include Elana Como, Early Learning Resource Center Region 1 director and CEO of Northwest Institute of Research; Karen Grimm-Thomas, of Creative Child Care Solutions of The Pennsylvania Key; Michelle Harkins, executive director of Early Connections; Andrea Heberlein, executive director of Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission; and Rina Irwin, CEO at Child Development Centers, Inc.
Phase three: Finding funds
After using data to find the most impactful solution, the team will name the price required to implement those solutions. Once there's a number on the table, the team will look to community businesses and partners to make the solution a feasible reality.
Patrick Herr, vice president of community involvement at The Erie Community Foundation, said it takes a collective impact approach to address these complex problems.
He also noted that political representatives are a part of this conversation as well, united by a common goal of improving the economy through smart policy and investments.
"Our goal at The Erie Community Foundation is to bring together diverse perspectives to tackle community challenges," Herr said. "Supporting parents with quality child care is a double investment in our workforce and our children, which aligns with our vision of a unified, vibrant, and thriving region."
Chloe Forbes is a local journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.