Creating a Racially Equitable Child Care System: The Dire Importance of Helping Policy Makers Understand the System and the Needs of Families

Kimberly Perry

In Washington, DC, COVID-19 further exposed health issues for Black and Brown families and forced policy makers to reckon with the disparities. In addition, the fragility of our child care sector had been laid bare, and some lawmakers wanted to learn more. While they were empathetic to the COVID-related financial challenges of the child care sector, they did not have inside knowledge of the nuances of how the child care sector is funded; thus, they weren’t quite sure how to help. This was the moment that we, as advocates, realized we had dropped the ball on simple and clear messaging. Here are some changes that have occurred in light of that realization. 
 
The Power of Storytelling 

Families Shared Their Experiences 
At the start of the pandemic, we realized families and the child care programs that serve them were now really interested in sharing their stories. We convened a series of virtual Town Halls - three for the child care community, three for home visiting (including families, directors, and home visitors), and others broadly for health care and education. Through those Town Halls, we heard story-after-story about how families were negatively affected by the pandemic, including not being able to meet their basic needs like paying rent, buying groceries, and having the right technology and Wi-Fi to conduct distance learning for their children. We also heard directly from child care educators and operators about how parents could no longer pay to keep their slots, and how programs were likely going to have to furlough or lay-off their staff, due to a lack of income. 

We documented and shared their stories with agency directors and lawmakers to show that children and families and the child care programs that serve them were in dire need of financial support. We mounted a digital campaign calling for the stabilization of the child care sector. On the first day the digital petition went live, 125 individuals signed. The next week, 3,000 signed. We continued to capture stories, and encouraged families and child care educators to join us in meetings with lawmakers and to speak directly to them about their struggles. 

We had a never-ending list of family and provider stories to draw from that could fuel our advocacy efforts. We then turned the stories into video campaigns. The first video campaign was launched in response to the mayor cutting family-strengthening home visiting programs. More than 21 parents and home visitors recorded videos to explain why home visiting is a critical lifeline during the pandemic. It trended on Twitter for the day and prompted the DC Council to restore those cuts. We provided the same opportunity for child care providers to record videos. 

These efforts garnered $5 million in government funding to provide stabilization grants to child care programs, and another $6.4 million for FY21. And, the campaign inspired at least a million dollars more from private philanthropy to assist child care programs in reopening. These investments are a testament to the power of storytelling – and a reminder to us, as advocates, to set the stage for families and educators to tell their own stories, and then get out of the way. No one is more effective at telling family and educator stories than families and educators themselves.  

The Story of the Child Care System Has Not Been Told  
At the start of the budget session, we planned to advocate for an additional $40 million to fund our new Birth to Three law. We planned for $20 million to expand the child care subsidy and another $20 million toward pay raises for early childhood educators. Once the pandemic hit and city revenues halted, city leaders announced a nearly $400 million hole in the budget. We quickly pivoted our ask and the strategy behind it. What we didn’t anticipate was the lack of knowledge lawmakers had about the complexity of how child care programs are funded. In DC, child care programs receive payments in a variety of ways. About 20-30 percent of providers receive payments directly from the city -- and DC contributes a much higher local match into the child care subsidy; an additional 10-20 percent of providers operate on mixed payments (some subsidy and some direct payments from parents); the rest depend on direct payments from parents for tuition. When the pandemic hit and schools closed, so did most child care programs. While they were closed, only subsidy providers continued to get payments. The rest were void of any income. And, even for those who continued to receive subsidy payments, it still wasn’t enough to keep their business open. Communicating this nuance to lawmakers was a significant challenge.  

As advocates, we realized there is no government leader who is informing lawmakers about the complexities of financing the child care sector. It is a debate and discussion that is absent from the public discourse. Clearly, child care is a public good and now we are called to take on this information and education campaign in order to further stabilize the sector and/or re-build it for future sustainability. 
 
Changes in the Way We Advocate 
During the pandemic, we saw a community of early educators ready to articulate their value. It suddenly felt urgent to show the public how integral early care and education is to families and communities – and to the economy! As advocates, we have been reflecting on this budget cycle, and have realized that our job is to create platforms for families and educators to advocate for themselves. 
 
Another change is that as advocates we are learning about our own power - and that we have to share it. The more we convened Town Halls, the more voices we let in – and the more we understood the challenges, but also revealed who might be missing. We had missed the mark by making everything so policy oriented. There is now a committee for every sector and not just legislative and policy. We want to hear about people’s lived experience. 
 
Other Changes 

Service Delivery  
The most dramatic change regarding service delivery has been home visiting. Home visitors have very intimate relationships with the families they serve; thus, they quickly pivoted to telephone and video to understand the needs of families. It was a critical lifeline into families’ homes to determine what children and families need immediately. We estimate that probably 
60-70 percent of home visitors will continue to use technology in addition to safe, appropriately-distanced, in-person visits.  
 
Workforce 
One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that parents now have a greater understanding of how fragile the child care system is. We have been able to have a lot more candid conversations about the inequities in pay and access to resources. It certainly is helping us plan better for the future as we now have greater buy-in. It pushed lawmakers to listen to us about the fragility of the sector. Our coalition is moving into the accountability phase. After this experience, we now are even stronger: we have a larger base of diverse parents and child care providers and I believe they are in it for the long term.  
 
Systems  
It has been eye-opening for working/middle class parents losing jobs to see the hoops that poor people have to jump through to receive financial assistance. Empathy has grown and I hope our systems will forever be changed. This may not happen immediately, but I believe it will happen with our diligence and focus on building the sector back stronger.  
 
Toward a More Racially Equitable System 
COVID, and the racial reckoning that has occurred over these months, has given us permission to talk about issues through a variety of different lenses. We have witnessed the power of advocacy through a broad base and diverse coalition-building effort that leverages families' powerful stories through various methods. It helps leaders and policy makers understand the complexities of the system and the complex needs of families. Further, we have learned that coordination of our early childhood systems is key. The pandemic exposed the fragmentation. We aim to build bridges from paid family leave to early care and education, and early care and education to Pre-K 3 and 4. We must coordinate better, so parents can navigate what they need for their family and, together, we can create a more racially equitable system. 

About the Author

Kimberly Perry has spent her career dedicated to building powerful organizations to amplify citizen's voices. Her work has driven critical policy change to improve the lives of nearly 30 million children and families across the globe. As DC Action for Children's Executive Director, her vision is to achieve race equity in child policy. She is ramping up the organization's resources, human capital, and networks to break down structural barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. She is most well known as Founding Director of DC Hunger Solutions, Vice President of the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Executive Director of DC Vote, as well as for her other advisory roles in political campaigns, public policy advocacy, and philanthropy. Kimberly serves on the Board of Directors of the Congressional Hunger Center, the DC Community Housing Trust, and is Chair of Highest Ground.