CLAYTON — St. Louis County could give a nonprofit supporting early childhood development $5.6 million in federal aid for higher education scholarships and wage incentives to shore up a workplace shortage.
Representatives of the nonprofit, Child Care Aware of Missouri, and several child care providers told the council on Tuesday that the funding would help boost recruitment and retention and improve education for children 5 and younger by incentivizing educator training.
“Your investment will strengthen child care in St. Louis County today by retaining child care educators who are vital to our children and our families and our workforce,” said Beth Ann Lang, chief program officer.
The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, would expand a scholarship program run by the nonprofit and add a new wage incentive program for an estimated 1,230 workers over the next three years.
The funding would come out of the county’s roughly $75 million federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
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The scholarship program would cover tuition, book and supply reimbursements, paid time off from work for study, a stipend and a completion bonus, Lang said.
The county funding would pay for 80 scholarship recipients and 330 wage-incentive recipients each year, with scholarships and wage incentives paid out directly to the worker and not their employer, Lang said.
To be eligible, teachers would have work in a county child care program at least 30 hours a week, and scholarship recipients would have to commit to staying at the center for another year after completing their degree.
Missouri’s average hourly wage for early childhood care educators is $11.83, and many workers regularly leave for better paying jobs, Lang said. Early childhood care does not have state funding and support like grade school education.
Child care centers are struggling to hire and retain “competent, interested, talented, potential staff,” said Linda Bethany Coverson, with YWCA Head Start, which partners with child care centers serving low-income families.
Workers were leaving for “Costco and other places” that are “offering wages that people need so they can live and put gas in their tank,” she said.
Ana Hernández Kent, a researcher with the Institute of Economic Equity of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said the state has seen roughly 1,200 early childhood teachers leave the workforce since 2019, a decrease of about 7%.
Kent said investments in early childhood care have shown a benefit to getting more women into the labor force and growing the economy. Roughly 23% of Missouri workers are parents with children 5 or younger, she said.
Kebra Peeples, with Training Up A Child Development Center in Florissant, warned the shortage is being felt by county businesses whose workers can’t find child care centers for their young children.
“Sam’s, Walgreens, hospitals, Schnucks, grocery stores, these places — if we’re not open, then they’re not going to be open because they greatly depend on us,” she said.
The bill appeared to get tacit support Tuesday from a Democratic majority on the council, all women.
But Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-4th District, joined Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, and Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, in expressing reservations about being the only government jurisdiction to contribute funding.
Lang said the county would be “demonstrating leadership” and become “a model” for the rest of the state.
Clancy said advocates had originally sought $20 million, but she reduced the amount recognizing it would have to compete with other proposals for ARPA funds.
The bill is one of the few proposals for the county’s remaining federal aid — left over from $193 million to the county last year — to undergo a council committee hearing.
Among the largest proposals are three bills by Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, that would spend $29 million on the police department, and a proposal by Trakas to spend $25 million on projects in his South County district, which is mostly unincorporated.
No ARPA bills are likely to see council action until July, at the earliest. Council Chair Rita Days, D-1st District, has asked the council to delay votes until Gov. Mike Parson signs the state budget and authorizes spending that may give the county matching grants for some ARPA-related projects.
Posted at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 14. Updated at 5:18 p.m. Wednesday to clarify the number of Missouri workers with children 5 or younger