The Context: Low compensation creates challenges with educator recruitment and retention 

Nationwide, early care and education (ECE) staff are drastically under-compensated for the important work they do, with an average wage of about $14/hour. Low compensation means child care programs struggle to recruit and retain qualified staff. When providers reduce their capacity or close due to retention issues, families cannot find care for their children. To address this and other challenges, Illinois launched Smart Start Illinois, a multi-year plan to improve the early childhood system in Illinois. Smart Start Workforce Grants are among several initiatives slated for implementation.  State leaders sought Afton’s guidance to design and develop Smart Start Workforce Grants, along with several other Smart Start Illinois initiatives. 

The Goal: Design a grant program for maximum impact 

Smart Start Workforce Grants are an innovative, first-of-its-kind approach to address the ECE workforce shortage. The grants use state general revenue to increase ECE educator salaries, enabling child care programs to better compensate their staff without raising tuition for families. Child care programs participating in Smart Start Workforce Grants will receive funding to pay their classroom staff a required “wage floor” or minimum position-specific wage, which often equates to a $2-3 per hour raise for classroom staff.  

The Approach: Keeping providers at the center of the process 

Afton Partners worked with state leaders and the early childhood provider community to design workforce grants so they achieve maximum impact. The Afton team provides comprehensive support with project management, community engagement, cost modeling, and data analysis.  

  • Project management: The Afton team coordinates the project and works with several state partners, including the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA), and the Center for Early Learning Funding Equity (CELFE) to determine the direction and design of the grants. Afton facilitates weekly planning meetings with project leaders and ensures that the many moving parts of the program are on track.  
  • Community engagement: Afton also convenes an advisory committee of providers and advocates to provide input, pressure test policy options, and surface potential risks and opportunities. The advisory group has met almost monthly for over a year and members champion workforce grants within their communities. In addition to consistent planning with state partners and the advisory group, Afton has engaged the broader provider community through a survey and focus groups. Our community engagement efforts involved hearing from over 1,800 child care providers across Illinois, including talking to 110 early childhood educators in focus groups. Providers shared their stories about challenges they experience and offered valuable insight on proposed policy ideas. Our community engagement efforts included the unique perspectives of Spanish-speaking providers, home-based providers, and others who have historically had less access to grant opportunities.  
  • Cost modeling and data analysis: Afton also utilized input from the community engagement process to update a cost model that supports policymakers to understand options for distributing funding within a budget. The cost model offered valuable information that allowed policymakers to determine grant parameters that balance reaching as many programs as possible with meaningful award amounts. The cost model also provided information to calculate grant award amounts that cover the additional cost associated with raising wages.  

The Outcomes: Sustainable funding for a more secure workforce 

Illinois is one of only a few states that have committed significant resources to address the issue of an underfunded ECE workforce. The grants, paired with some federal funding, will invest nearly $200 million dollars in the early childhood workforce in the upcoming fiscal year. Afton’s involvement and expertise helped ensure that the distribution plan for those funds was informed by the people they are intended to benefit.  

With a plan in place to monitor the program and engage in continuous improvement, we hope to see positive progress, including: 

  • Less turnover for child care programs and improved educator recruitment and retention.  
  • Compensation for ECE educators that better supports their families and reflects the importance of their role.  
  • A more stable child care market, with better access to dependable child care for families.  

At Afton, we put people first. Doing so results in stronger research design, more nuanced insights, and better decision-making. We are proud to come alongside communities to co-create both problem-solving processes and actionable solutions in a way that respects and engages those who stand to be most impacted. Ready to get started on yours? Get in touch.