In Cabarrus County, a public-private child care partnership is creating buzz as a new way to help solve the child care crisis within local communities.
“We’re hoping others will see what we have done and model it. During this child care crisis, it is important to think about innovative solutions to child care accessibility and affordability,” says Carla Brown, the County’s Early Childhood Education Coordinator.
In March of 2020, just as the pandemic was ramping up and many child care centers were forced to close, the Cabarrus County Early Childhood Task Force Advisory Board recommended a public-private partnership to expanded child care to the Board of County Commissioners. The board supported the recommendation, and a partnership between Cabarrus County government and All Saints Episcopal Church was formed with a goal to open a child care center at the church for use by county employees and the community. The site would also serve as a practicum site for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College students as they seek real-world experiences with children.
The Lockhart Child Development Center, which opened its doors on September 27, 2021, serves as a model of the benefits of quality early education for children and a road map for how public-private partnerships and employers can support families with their child care needs.
Like much of North Carolina, Cabarrus County is a child care desert. Countywide, 74 percent of infants and toddlers with working parents need care, but only 26 percent of centers have available space. When child care is unavailable, working families (and disproportionately mothers) must cut back at work or leave the workforce altogether, losing income and, often, risking their family’s economic security to keep a caregiver at home. This in turn impacts businesses, who face workforce shortages or recruitment and retention issues when fewer people are able to work.
Jarrett Glass, a broadcast and production manager for the County and a father of two children who go to Lockhart, is clear about what would happen in his family if child care was unavailable.
“No child care means one of us would have to quit our jobs or work part-time to watch and raise our children until they become school-aged. That can be a dangerous situation and, if things don’t work out, could present some real financial hardship,” Jarrett says.
It’s important to help employers as well as local and state leaders understand challenges families must navigate, Carla says.
“If we can increase awareness about child care accessibility – what it is and what families face – then we want to do that,” she says.
To open Lockhart, the County made a one-time grant of $225,000 from its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funds to support start-up costs, wages and a playground replacement. An additional $375,000 covered the first year cost of subsidizing tuition for employees with a reoccurring annual expense of $275,000 for that purpose. Significant remodeling expenses were funded entirely by All Saints parishioners and a Cannon Foundation grant.
Currently, there are 68 children enrolled in the program, which serves children from birth to five. Lockhart has the highest quality rating from the state, and tuition ranges from $1,000-1,200 per month depending on the age of the child. County employees pay 50 percent out-of-pocket, or $500-600 per month. This subsidy from the county is significant for families, especially considering child care tuition in the County costs more on average than in-state college tuition, from $10,986-11,952 on average per year for one child.
The county reserves 40 of the licensed slots for employees, and the remaining slots are open to the community. Unfilled County slots are available to the community as well; however, priority is given to county employees if an opening occurs up to the 40 reserved slots.
Jarrett, who has worked for the County for nine years, says his family moved to Cabarrus County from Charlotte because he was hoping for more “normal” 9-5 work hours, which can be a difficulty in the television industry. He was worried about finding care for his children – Rocco, age four, and Charlie, 7 months – and is very happy with the quality of care his children are receiving at Lockhart. Plus, the fact that the county assists with tuition makes the benefit “extremely valuable.”
“Having two kids in child care at the same time costs as much as a decent full-time job pays, so it makes sense that some folks just opt to stay home to raise their children,” Jarrett says. “The County subsidized tuition allows us to access quality and affordable care options for our children and stay in the workforce, which benefits everybody.”
Carla says the partnership that created Lockhart is a key piece to Cabarrus County’s efforts to impact early childhood systems and further the County’s progress on their Early Childhood Action Plan (ECAP) which aligns with the measures laid out in the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan. The plan, developed in response to an executive order issued by NC Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018, recommends concrete measures and steps counties and municipalities can take to achieve better health and well-being outcomes for children. The action measures established by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation’s Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative served as a framework for the statewide action plan, and family-friendly supports such as child care and paid leave are called out in the recommendations.
As a parent, Jarrett says he’s thankful for the child care support, and he’d love to see the County consider more benefits, like extending its maternity and paternity leave programs (currently six weeks’ leave for mothers and no leave for fathers) to remain competitive.
With any future policy changes, higher retention rates, lower absenteeism, and employee satisfaction remain top of mind, Carla says.
She says she also hopes the County will inspire other local employers to become more family friendly – and she’s already seen some success when it comes to child care.
“A couple of new businesses, coming to the county, are being proactive and have reached out to local leaders to discuss anticipated employee child care needs and possible solutions,” she says.