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Parents can expect child care costs to rise this year. Here’s why.

Three young children stand next to cubby holes at a pre-school with their backs to the camera.
Liz Schlemmer
Students in the two to three-year-old classroom at the Community School for People Under Six in Carrboro, North Carolina.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Adrien Wilkie was home with her four-month-old son Thomas. She’d just finished up work for the day, and he was content to sit in her lap.

“He’s a remarkably chill baby, certainly compared to our older child,” Wilkie said with a grin.

Normally, Thomas would still be at day care with his older sister, but his child care center closed its infant classroom that day so some employees could rally at the statehouse for funding. Wilkie and her husband rearranged their day and found a neighbor who could babysit him.

“So yeah, he was home today, and we made it work,” Wilkie said.

The rally was billed as “A Day Without Child Care” and those in attendance say it's a sign of things to come.

In North Carolina, federal COVID-19 relief funds to the child care industry end in June. A recent survey of child care providers across the state found that without those funds, nearly a third may have to close permanently. But as a first line of defense, most providers — about 88% — plan to raise their tuition rates.

Wilkie found out her family’s rates were going up in a letter from the school.

“We're getting an anticipated 8% to 10% increase starting July 1,” Wilkie said. “We have two children in day care, so calculating that for 2024, I think we will be spending about $32,000 to $34,000 on child care for one year.”

That’s a substantial rate increase — more than inflation and certainly more than a typical raise — but Wilkie says it’s not enough to be worth it for her or her husband to quit their jobs and stay home.

“I mean, what are we going to do? We need the child care,” Wilkie said.

Adrien Wilkie holds up her four-month-old son outdoors in front of their family car.
Liz Schlemmer
Adrien Wilkie has seen the tuition rates at her children's child care center rise each year. Next year, she expects an 8% to 10% increase, which the childcare center says is due to the likely loss of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

It’s also not the first rate increase she’s seen since her older daughter started day care three years ago. Child care centers charge the most for infants because they require more one-on-one care, so parents' costs usually go down as the child grows.

“Every year we would have anticipated a decrease, but by the time she was (two years old) we were still paying the same as when she was an infant — actually, a little bit more,” Wilkie said.

Her children attend the Community School for People Under Six in Carrboro. It serves 33 children and has a five-star license rating from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

The school’s director Anna Mercer McLean said she doesn’t take the rate increases lightly.

“I just want families to know that we do not want them to bear the burden of this cost because we know they can't afford the true cost of care,” McLean said.

Child care providers hope the state legislature can increase state funding via subsidies or grants to make up for some of the lost federal funds to cover the necessary costs to remain open.

McLean went to Raleigh last week to talk to lawmakers about what it means to lose the stabilization grants her center received during the pandemic. Early on, they covered immediate pandemic-related needs. But the grants ending now were designated for compensating teachers.

“We gave bonuses at the beginning, and then we did a salary increase,” McLean explained.

McLean said there’s no going back on those raises.

“I’m not taking away salaries. Never will, not gonna do it. I mean our teachers deserve every dollar they receive, and they need more,” McLean said.

Anna Mercer McLean, director of the child care center Community School for People Under Six poses for a portrait at a rally in Raleigh.
Liz Schlemmer
Anna Mercer McLean is the director of the Community School for People Under Six in Carrboro. She says federal stabilization grants allowed her to raise salaries for teachers at her school, and if that funding ends, she may be forced to close the center's doors after 32 years.

Early childhood educators in North Carolina are paid on average less than $15 an hour, even after the infusion of federal grants.

McLean said even though relief funds helped her increase salaries and benefits, she’s still struggling to hire enough teachers to keep her center at full capacity and fulfill the demand from families.

“We have a long waiting list. We just don't have teachers to fill the classrooms,” McLean said.

The search for employees has become more competitive in recent years. Early childhood teachers could make more working at Amazon or large department stores, without the stress of caring for multiple children at once.

McLean said if she can’t hire more teachers to increase her center’s enrollment, she worries she could have to close it after 32 years in the business.

“If I don't get it figured out quick about how to sustain and continue to operate the way we've always operated previously, then I'm a little worried,” McLean said.

Child care advocates hope state lawmakers will act quickly to increase state funding to the childcare industry. Because if the worst predictions come true, more than 90,000 children in North Carolina could lose their care.

It’s a lot of children. It is a lot of children,” McLean said with a sigh.

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Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org