Early Childhood

Spotlight on Early Childhood Care and Education

August 25, 2020


  • Michelle Hughes, Executive Director, NC Child
  • Muffy Grant, Executive Director, NC Early Childhood Foundation

Leaders in the early childhood space, Michelle Hughes of NC Child and Muffy Grant of the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF), sat down with us to describe the state of early childhood care in North Carolina, their vision for the future, and how to get involved.

1. Can you tell us more about your organizations?

Michelle: NC Child builds a stronger North Carolina by advancing public policies to ensure that every child in our state has the opportunity to thrive – whatever their race, ethnicity, or place of birth. We focus on four critical areas that we believe every child needs: quality early care and learning, access to health services and healthy environments, family economic security, and nurturing homes and communities.

Muffy: North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation works to promote understanding, spearhead collaboration, and advance policies to ensure each North Carolina child is on track for lifelong success by the end of third grade.

2. What would people be surprised to know about early childhood education in North Carolina?

Michelle: I think people would be surprised to learn how few children are actually served in licensed child care settings in North Carolina. Only about a third of children 0-5 years attend a licensed child care program. And there are huge racial and ethnic disparities in which children are served in these programs. We really want to increase access to early education so that every child has the opportunity to build their social skills and enter kindergarten ready to learn, but the cost of early education puts access far out of reach for many parents. If we want to truly support children’s early development and growth, we need to make high-quality early childhood programs affordable for every family.

Muffy: Only one percent of state funding is dedicated to the early care and education system. The K-12 school system receives 40 percent of state funding. This disparity demonstrates that birth-5 education has traditionally not been viewed as essential infrastructure that every family should have access to, like libraries, public parks, or K-12 education. Our current child care system is built on an outdated economic model – where a family could live on one parent’s income while the other stayed home with the young children. Today’s reality is that more than 60 percent of children under age six in North Carolina are living in homes where their only parent or both parents are working. Child care has to become an essential public good to ensure that parents can work and the North Carolina economy can grow.

COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated the inequities and disparities that early childhood education advocates have been raising for years. is not alarmist to recognize the catastrophic effects on the sector.

Muffy Grant
3. There has been a lot of conversation about COVID-19's impacts on child care and we know there were existing challenges prior to COVID. Can you share more about those challenges and how the pandemic is impacting them?

Michelle: The child care system was already a fragile system before COVID-19 hit our state because it is a system of small businesses operating on very thin margins. Nearly half of all people in our state live in a child care desert (defined as an area where there are more than three children for every available child care spot). Infant and toddler care is even harder to find. Parents who do manage to pay for child care are paying as much or more for care than they do on their mortgages. Many parents simply leave the workplace because financially they just can’t make it work. This has a very dampening impact on our economy, and particularly hurts women who lose years of earning potential as a result.

Shamefully, our early education teachers are being paid incredibly low wages, averaging $10.50/hour, often without benefits. One in five child care providers are uninsured. This is no way to operate an early education system that is supposed to be building the healthy brains of our youngest children.

COVID-19 has made all of this worse. During the pandemic, half of all programs closed. With support from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, we have seen the re-opening of many, but across North Carolina, our child care programs are operating at about half of their typical enrollment. Many are saying that they will be shuttered permanently. Every child care program is struggling financially – laying off staff, working without pay, and financing day-to-day operations on credit cards. The situation is dire if we can’t find sustained, operating support for these programs during the pandemic. North Carolina faces the loss of thousands of child care slots in the months ahead.

Muffy: COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated the inequities and disparities that early childhood education advocates have been raising for years. Most notably, the system carries a significant waitlist for families eligible for subsidy. Imagine how many families will now fall into the eligibility category due to lost jobs and wages. The subsidy waitlist is growing at a rate that is untenable. As Michelle mentioned, if you match that with the number of centers that have to close due to lost parent revenue during the pandemic, additional PPE requirements, and an educator workforce that is better compensated through unemployment insurance, it is not alarmist to recognize the catastrophic effects on the sector.

4. How do you see race and racism operating in early childhood education? What can we do to increase equity in child care?

Michelle: Early childhood education has been shaped by a long history of systemic and structural racism. Christine Johnson-Staub from CLASP authored a report on this in 2017 called, Equity Starts Early: Addressing Racial Inequities in Child Care and Early Education Policy. She lays out the history of policy decisions that have impacted the ability of children of color to have access to quality early learning in our nation’s history.

We have a lot of work to do. First, there are major racial disparities in children’s access to quality child care that meets their families’ cultural and linguistic needs. Children of color are much more likely to be growing up in communities with few resources – fewer child care centers, fewer grocery stores, fewer parks and libraries. This is the visible result of racist policies and inequitable investments in communities of color. We need targeted policy and funding to support Black and brown children in the communities where they live.

Next, we must address the stunning economic injustice towards teachers who are educating and caring for our youngest children. Early care and education workers are paid shockingly low wages – $10.50/hour on average in North Carolina, often with no benefits. The majority are women of color. As Christine Johnson-Staub points out, “black women have historically borne the burden of domestic work and child care, first while enslaved, now as a deeply undervalued labor force.” By continuing to pay early education teachers poverty wages, we are perpetuating our shameful, racist history.

And finally, we look at who makes the decisions about early education policy, programming, quality rating systems, and funding. Those power structures are overwhelmingly white. While well-intentioned, our early education leaders are continually reinforcing the same racist power structure that got us to this point. The decision-making table has to change in order for us to have any real impact on racial equity in early childhood education.

Muffy: There are many ways that racism has shaped our current early childhood education system. The early years of a child’s life are the most rapid period of brain development, yet early educators – nearly half of whom are women of color – are not afforded the respect their work deserves, as measured by compensation and professional development opportunities. Paying early educators for the essential work they do every day is an equity strategy.

We need to rethink early education as a public good. There are very few ventures that could begin to match the return on investment.

Michelle Hughes
5. Can you tell us what changes you’d like to see in child care moving forward?

Michelle: I think the number one issue we all need to grapple with is how we finance early childhood education in our state, and largely in the United States. The current private market model, in which parents shoulder most of the cost, means that for most families, early education is a luxury they cannot afford. What early education programs need to support quality programming, including fair and adequate teacher pay and benefits, will always outstrip what most parents can afford to pay.

We need to rethink early education as a public good. It benefits not only the children enrolled in the program, but the larger community. There is an amazing body of research that shows us the huge, multi-generational economic impact of early childhood education. There are very few ventures that could begin to match the return on investment. As a community we need to financially support early education in the same way that we all support public schools, whether or not we have kids enrolled in them. The benefits to society vastly outweigh the up-front cost. We need to look at significantly higher financial investments at the federal, state, and local levels. There are high-performing models all over the globe that we can follow.

Muffy: To echo Michelle, we’d like to see early childhood stakeholders – including business leaders and policy-makers – come together to agree that every family who needs it should have access to high-quality, affordable child care. That access is essential to support child development, ensure parents can go to work, and help the North Carolina economy thrive post-pandemic.

6. What progress within the sector are you most proud of?

Michelle: North Carolina should be very proud of the high-quality licensed child care system it has built. For all its limitations, our state committed thirty years ago to ensure that low-income children who were receiving a child care subsidy were attending high-quality programs. In this regard we are a model for many other states. This is something to be very proud of. At the same time, as leaders we must continually assess and question and learn. As we lean into questions of equity, and we re-examine the impact of policy and funding decisions with an equity lens, we are going to need to articulate where we have fallen short and what we need to change to assure that all children have access to opportunity – not just the wealthy and the few lucky enough to get a subsidy. And we should do all this in a spirit of continuous quality improvement. We have done many good things in North Carolina, and we need to do better.

Muffy: North Carolina has much to be proud of when it comes to educating young children. We were the first state to make full-day kindergarten universally available. We pioneered the nation’s first comprehensive early childhood initiative, Smart Start, to improve the quality of child care, provide access to health screenings, and offer support to families. We also launched NC Pre-K (formerly More at Four) to provide at-risk children with high quality learning environments.

Early care and education is where real systemic opportunities for economic justice and racial justice begin.

Muffy Grant
7. What is giving you hope, either with your work or within the larger context of early childhood?

Michelle: Our young people give me hope. I watch them lean into these conversations about racial equity and see them demand change now. They have no patience for the usual excuses, and they are pushing all of us, myself included, to center racial equity in our advocacy for children and families.  It is long overdue and we have so much work to do, but I have hope that we can make changes – at the individual, community and policy levels – that will move us closer to racial and economic justice in our society.

Muffy: Early care and education is where real systemic opportunities for economic justice and racial justice begin. For the past few years, racial equity has become the lens through which we analyze the early childhood system. While change is incremental, we are developing a common language and recognizing the importance of keeping race at the forefront of the work. This has been intentional for NCECF and now, racial equity consultation is written into all grant budgets in all proposals coming out of our shop.

There is a great awakening happening in our country and I believe the early childhood advocacy community in North Carolina is ready to rise to the moment and reimagine a more equitable system that best serves all young children and their families. The next frontier is ensuring that child care is seen as a public good – and every family who needs it can access it.

8. What are ways people or organizations can get involved or support?

Michelle: Join our Child Advocacy Network! NC Child manages a statewide network of people who care about kids and want to make a difference in their communities and our state. Anyone can be a part of it. We stay in touch weekly with updates on public policy, opportunities to take action, and professional development for those who serve kids and families in our state.  Sign up at our website,

Muffy: Families can make sure that decision makers on the local, state, and federal level understand our needs as working parents and how the current child care system is not working for us. Business owners can acknowledge that dependable, high quality child care supports their bottom lines by ensuring their employees can get to work – and adapt personnel and HR policies to support employees’ ability to access and afford child care. Additionally, there are opportunities to support local child care programs and their workforces.

Child Care Services Association (CCSA) in collaboration with North Carolina’s Smart Start network and Child Care Resources and Referrals have joined together to create the COVID-19 Relief Fund for child care programs. CCSA and Smart Start have always played a role in helping child care programs provide the highest quality early learning experience for our state’s youngest children. Now that programs are struggling to meet the needs of our essential workforce, CCSA and Smart Start are working together to be a lifeline for programs to get the tools and resources they need during this challenging time. Learn more about how you can help support the COVID-19 Relief Fund here.

Finally, you can donate to NCECF to support our work to bring together the great minds of our state to rebuild a child care system that works for every family.


About the Authors

Michelle Hughes is the Executive Director of NC Child. Learn more at




Muffy Grant is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation. Learn more at