Child Care Provider Jen Rathbun’s Story: Child Care Industry In Need of Funding, Qualified Teachers

Nearly two decades ago, Jen Rathbun was asked to join the Board of Directors for the nonprofit child care program Joyful Noise in West Warwick, Rhode Island when her son was a toddler attending the program. She held a few different roles within the organization, and was named director in 2017. 

“Ensuring parents are happy is extremely important, but I realized quickly that it’s arguably most important to keep your staff happy,” said Jen. “If I notice someone on my team showing signs of burnout, I immediately get them additional support, or switch up their classroom assignment or their co-teachers–something to ensure their personal well-being and their ability to continue to do their job at the necessary level of peak performance. And of course I’m doing everything I can to get funding to increase their wages–they deserve more.”

Although the pandemic has made things difficult for Joyful Noise, as it has for the entire child care industry, Jen and her team found it to be a unique opportunity to address staff compensation challenges. Joyful Noise received a child care reinvigoration grant (funded with federal COVID relief resources) which allowed them to make necessary upgrades to their facilities, and applied for various COVID-related child care stabilization grants which allowed them to provide much-needed wage increases, bonuses for teachers and staff, and even tuition relief for a few families enrolled in the program who were facing pandemic-related financial difficulties.

“Families and teachers in our community were struggling. It was so important for us to help with tuition so families could stay on their feet, and to pay our teachers bonuses and wage increases to ensure we retain the talented, qualified staff to run our business successfully,” said Jen. “We’re doing ok now because of this temporary support, but when these grants are no longer available, I don’t see how we’ll keep the highly qualified teachers we need. So many centers have closed, and the child care crisis will worsen without this pandemic relief that has been a lifeline.”

Joyful Noise currently has a long waitlist, including thirty families for their toddler classroom alone. However, they’re still struggling to find and retain enough qualified teachers to staff their classrooms. 

“Many job applicants aren’t qualified, and qualified teachers often can’t justify staying in the field due to the low pay. In the long-term, we need big changes so that we can adequately pay early childhood educators, but in the short term, we spend a lot of time and money constantly searching for and hiring new teachers, and training them to work with the kids,” said Jen. 

Jen stresses the importance of passing the Early Educator Investment Act (H-7283 / S-2235) and passing an FY23 state budget includes funds to continue the ARPA pandemic retention bonus for all child care educators, to provide $2 million to expand the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood scholarship program model, and to provide $5 million in ARPA funds to launch the Child Care WAGE$ model to provide additional compensation to child care educators with post-secondary credentials. 

“Professional development is mandatory for us, and our teachers spend many hours continuing their education so we can provide the highest quality early learning environment. We also have multiple employees who have been able to take advantage of the incredible T.E.A.C.H. program, which reimburses them for some of the costs to get their degree while they’re working, and reimburses child care centers so we can pay someone to fill in for them. It benefits everyone,” said Jen.

She also encourages legislators to pass the Child Care is Essential Act (H-7177 / S-2681) and include $50 million in state and federal funding to increase Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) rates, and lift family income eligibility limits so more families can get help paying for child care, continue CCAP payments based on children’s enrollment, and make investments to improve the quality and expand the supply of child care statewide.

“I hope legislators and other decision-makers realize how important this workforce is, and compensate them accordingly so we can attract the best and brightest teachers to the field. Early childhood educators shape the future. They can’t be at the bottom of the scale in terms of pay–this work is too important, and we’re missing out on so many incredible educators if we’re not willing to pay them a living wage,” said Jen.