Start Early. Start well.

January 06, 2022

Federal money is available to help the struggling child care system. Investing in the early childhood workforce can pay off long-term.

Woman with babyMariah Stowe, owner of Splash of Color Child Care in Lincoln, with an infant in her care. A new report from the Buffett Institute presents ideas for how to use federal funding to support the early childhood education system in Nebraska.

By Erin Duffy 

Susan Sarver and Cathey Huddleston-Casas envision the early childhood education system as a quilt. Soft, rubbed worn by love and use, but fraying at the seams. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, child care workers dealt with low pay. High turnover. Less respect. The pandemic added more strain, leading to further unraveling. 

How do we piece this quilt back together? How can we make it stronger? 

It needs reinforcement. It needs stronger threads. It needs to be woven together again with more sustainable and less patchwork sources of funding. 

Sarver and Huddleston-Casas are the director and associate director, respectively, of workforce planning and development at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. They say it’s going to take long-term investments to improve the working conditions and address the challenges facing the early childhood workforce—the people dedicated to caring for and educating our children.  

Help is on the way, in the form of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government, and a new report from the Buffett Institute presents ideas for how this funding could be used. It’s estimated that Nebraska will receive nearly $300 million for child care through various channels, including the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. Child care providers have already applied for grants to pay rent, make payroll, or cover the costs of cleaning supplies.  

These federal dollars can help soothe the sting and hardships brought on by a global pandemic. 

Susan SarverSusan Sarver

But sustained investment in early childhood education beyond these funds remains critical to Nebraska’s economic growth and future. That system is disjointed and has been underfunded for years. A large gap exists between what is needed to fund quality care and what is funded by a tangle of different sources: the high costs that families shoulder and federal, state, local, and philanthropic dollars. The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, which aims to make early childhood care and education a respected, fairly compensated profession, called for Nebraska’s system to be fully funded by 2030 with increased investments from the federal government, the state, philanthropy and business. 

Here’s why: early childhood education is good for children’s brains. Child care is a necessity for the many families who work, and their employers.  

“What we’ve always recognized as critical to keeping the entire economic system going is now obvious to people who haven't been paying attention,” Huddleston-Casas said. “So we need to do something, we need to put resources in, we need to shore this up.” 

In their recently released report, Huddleston-Casas and Sarver highlight suggestions for using the federal funding in ways that will pay dividends in the future. They’re not just identifying spending options—they’re digging into the why. Why it makes sense to invest in these areas, why it’s important to leverage one-time funds for long-term gain. 

In the report, they recommend four areas of focus—which all boil down to investing in human capital: 

Allocate money for stipends or pay raises before more early educators leave the field. 
Use retention allowances to hold on to those with valuable classroom experience.  
Dedicate funds to training and professional development—state regulations require new hires and veterans to log hours of trainings per year. Federal money could defray the cost of those courses for child care providers, who already run their businesses on slim profit margins.  
Pump more money into T.E.A.C.H. scholarships that allow educators to pursue degrees in early childhood education, so they don’t incur more debt for trying to get ahead in their profession.  

What need is the most pressing? 

Higher pay, the two agree.  

Nationally, early childhood workers make a median wage of just $12.24 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while big box stores, fast food chains, and warehouses have begun raising wages. 

“We’re losing staff,” Sarver said. “We can’t hire qualified people.” 

“We can’t compete,” Huddleston-Casas said.  

Cathy Huddleston-CasasCathey Huddleston-Casas

A shortage of workers makes it harder for families to find available, affordable care for their kids. And it hurts local employers when parents quit or reduce their hours due to child care issues. 

According to their report, as of July, 13% of child care programs in Nebraska that existed pre-pandemic have closed. There are now 1,500 fewer early childhood workers, a 14% decrease. 

In the report and in interviews, Sarver and Huddleston-Casas make clear they’re not advocating for federal funds to be spent on shiny new early childhood programs or hiring 2,000 new workers overnight. (That would be a big, if not impossible, lift in a state with a historically low 1.9% unemployment rate.) 

They want to invest in the workforce that already exists. They want to use federal recovery funds sustainably, knowing that those pots of money are not infinite and will not be able to support new programs or additional hires beyond a few years.  

“We have an existing workforce that’s doing amazing things already and that needs support and needs to be recognized for what they’re doing,” Sarver said.  There is some hesitation among providers and early childhood organizations who worry about what happens when the infusion of federal funding dries up.  

“These are just one-time funds, and people are afraid to actually raise salaries or invest in the workforce with one-time funds because what if I can’t keep doing it?” Huddleston-Casas said.  

But a one-year raise, a one-year scholarship, can help keep an early educator employed. It can buy more time for providers and policymakers and experts like Sarver and Huddleston-Casas to figure out lasting solutions for systemic problems like worker turnover and high costs for parents.  

“Part of the argument we make is that even a short-term stipend, a small pay increase can have a profound impact,” Sarver said. “And when you’re talking about unemployment rates so low and everyone is desperate to hire, you want to keep those with the most talent in the settings with the children. They can go make more at Target and have a much easier job.” 

Devoting funds so an educator can go back to school or a provider can pay for a CPR/first aid training is investing in the people who play a crucial role in helping children. Young children’s brains are expanding and learning and building new pathways at astonishing speeds. That’s why employee turnover is more than just a headache for child care administrators or directors—children benefit from forming relationships with trusted, familiar caregivers. 

With long-term, sustainable investments in the early childhood workforce, “you’re not just affecting one child,” Huddleston-Casas said. “You’re affecting the children that the caregiver has now and in the future.”   

Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.

Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at

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