There has been so much news on early childhood lately that we couldn’t resist adding our own information dump covering Afton’s recent efforts. Some exciting Afton-related early care and education (ECE) updates include:

We read hopeful articles all the time about more states and communities successfully directing excess revenue or remaining Covid relief funds to cushion the fall off the child care cliff. We believe more can and will be done to take advantage of the intense public spotlight that is still shining on this critical field.

Amid these bright spots, early care and education remains a very fragile system in the states Afton works with and nationwide. At this critical time, Afton invites your input and seeks your partnership in pursuit of our mission of transforming public policies and practices to be more effective, sustainable, and equitable. With ample evidence of the incredible return on investing in early childhood, including its ripple effects on addressing major issues in K-12, higher education, and the nation’s workforce and economy as a whole, we are humbled by the opportunity to do this work and grateful to many amazing leaders who are championing bright ideas with potential to make a difference. If you have any promising policy or practice innovations to share with our followers–whether in early childhood or elsewhere in the public sector–Afton would love to hear from you at any time. Thanks, as always, for all you do for children, youth, workers, families, and communities!

What is happening with Illinois Smart Start these days?

Smart Start Illinois is a multi-year plan to improve Illinois’ early care and education (ECE) system. Beginning with a $250 million dollar investment in FY24, Smart Start features first-in-the-nation state-funded compensation grants that will raise wages for many early childhood educators across the state. This investment comes just as COVID-19 federal relief funding for early care and education (ECE) is expiring and allows participating providers to offer better compensation in the midst of a staffing crisis. Patricia Rooney, Associate Director of Child Care Programs at the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) commented, “It excites me that with Smart Start, we finally have the opportunity to level the playing field for early childhood professionals to enter into the field and remain in the field.”

To determine how to strategically disperse funding for the workforce compensation grants, Afton partnered with IDHS to engage community members through facilitation of an advisory group, a survey, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations. We agree with Rooney’s statement that, “Stakeholder engagement is key to creating policy. Policy should be designed and informed by those most affected and address gaps and needs.”

In sum, Afton and IDHS heard from nearly 1,800 early childhood providers this summer and fall, which included conversations with 110 early childhood educators in focus groups. Several of these providers shared their stories and offered valuable insight about priorities and challenges with proposed policy ideas. This effort also involved hosting three focus groups in Spanish, which allowed us to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking providers.

Some of the key findings from focus groups included:

  • Child care providers see this funding as essential to pay their staff competitive wages. Many child care providers voiced that they have difficulty recruiting and retaining staff and want to prioritize raising wages to limit turnover. Current funding does not allow them to provide competitive wages.
  • Policy and funding design needs to consider the unique needs of home-based child care providers. Home-based child care providers often do not pay themselves a set wage. One of them explained, “I pay myself from what’s leftover once staff and supplies are taken care of. Pay varies a lot with enrollment and maintenance.”
  • Spanish supports are essential for inclusion. Spanish-speaking providers described how they appreciate resources and technical assistance in Spanish and often are not fully aware of opportunities available to them.

What’s next in Illinois and around the country?

As noted above, greater workforce compensation is just one of various solutions that are needed in the field of early care and education. In related Illinois work, Afton is also partnering to support long-term financial projections for the state’s current investments in early childhood. In addition to comprehensive support for Smart Start workforce compensation grants, this involves structural planning and cost modeling for the state’s Early Intervention program, subsidy policies and rate analyses, and updating of a funding equity map to complete multi-year trend analysis and allow for routine updates to this framework.

Through our close-up view of some states and our broad national field monitoring efforts, we have come to recognize some other areas of tremendous need across the country that include:

  • Early childhood governance changes and financial planning
  • Early childhood data alignment and strategic planning
  • Greater opportunities for and remediation of barriers to professional development and degree attainment among ECE professionals
  • Business community support and involvement in supporting the needs of the early childhood sector
  • Policy changes that enhance families’ access to subsidies and the overall affordability of quality programs that meet their needs
  • Increased support for programs to address social and emotional needs, embrace multiculturalism, and enhance overall quality of service to children and families

Learn more about Afton’s growing early care and education practice

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