'It's pretty serious.' Wake County nonprofit working to solve a vexing affordable child care crisis

Joel Brown Image
Thursday, May 11, 2023
NC nonprofit working to solve a vexing affordable childcare crisis
Parents and caretakers across North Carolina are seeking solutions to the affordable child care crisis. Parents are feeling the crunch

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Parents and caretakers across North Carolina are seeking solutions to the affordable childcare crisis. Thousands of local parents are feeling the crunch.

Many are forced to choose between work and staying home to care for their children. Some of the costs can be crushing.

The average annual cost of infant care at a private center in North Carolina is over $9,200, according to Child Care Aware. That's over $2,000 more than the average annual in-state tuition at a public university in North Carolina. It has parents overwhelmed and the businesses employing those parents overwhelmed, too.

At home in Wake County, Kirsten Bankhead talked to ABC11 about how her family is navigating the affordable childcare crisis. She and her husband, Thaddeus, are raising three children, 12, 6 and 3 years old, balancing school, youth sports and limited dollars to pay for quality childcare

"It's a lot," Bankhead said acknowledging the serious kitchen table talks she and her husband had about whether one of them could afford to stay home to take care of the kids.

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"It's pretty serious because you're gonna go from a two-income household to a one-income household. And with rent and food skyrocketing, we had to really think about it. We had to keep it a two-income household," Bankhead said.

Gayle Headen is the executive director of Wake County Smart Start.

"Before COVID, the early childhood system was already fragile. But since COVID, it's gotten even worse," said Headen who manages the all-in-one state-funded nonprofit which is devoted to linking income-eligible parents to free pre-K programs. Smart Start staffers work with families on health and parenting and also work with local pre-Ks to ensure that they're high-quality.

Headen says Wake Smart Start reached 47,000 children last year.

"We wrap ourselves around the child, around the family and we wrap ourselves around the classroom community," she said.

North Carolina Smart Start was born in 1993 -- part of then-Gov. Jim Hunt's education agenda. But, three decades later, the crisis is deepening and there's a new push to do more.

A bipartisan measure in the state budget passed in the House would fund a new initiative called Tri-Share. It aims to make child care more affordable by splitting the cost between parents, employers and the state.

"It's sharing the burden of that cost some by state public dollars, some by businesses -- because they want to get their workforce back to work," said Headen.

Back at the Bankheads, 3-year-old Kori begins pre-K through Smart Start in August. Mom calls her older sons, Smart Start success stories. She's eager to spread the word.

"I want other people to know about it and other people to apply and put their kids in because all kids need that stepping stone," said Bankhead.

This Saturday, Bankhead will be spreading the word at Wake County Smart Start's 25th-anniversary fundraiser. The event is Saturday night at 6 at Raleigh Convention Center.

SEE ALSO | Major reforms to give wider access to childcare, family planning services for NC military families

The federal and state governments are granting families wider access to quality childcare providers outside of military installations through a program called Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood-PLUS.