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New pilot program in North Carolina seeks to cut share costs of child care

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Marsaline Judd plays on the playground at Southern Community Park on July 6, 2022.

In its 2023-25 budget, the N.C. General Assembly established Tri-Share, a two-year pilot program that aims to split the cost of child care between employers, employees and the state.

The legislature’s goal in implementing Tri-Share is to increase access to high-quality, affordable childcare while helping employers retain their employees.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with Smart Start and North Carolina Partnership for Children, a child development initiative divided by region, to implement Tri-Share in three of North Carolina’s regions.

Smart Start’s Chief Strategy Officer, Safiyah Jackson, said Smart Start has been building relationships with communities in North Carolina for 30 years, and the organization will be leveraging those relationships through Tri-Share.

Prior to implementing the pilot program, Jackson said Smart Start spent time studying similar programs in other states and worked to bring North Carolina stakeholders to the table to assist with planning.

The state of North Carolina will grant $900,000 in federal funds to be split equally between three Smart Start regional locations over the course of the pilot program, which will launch in June or July 2024.

The pilot program will include the Cleveland County Partnership for Children and Families, which serves Cleveland, Rutherford, Henderson, Lincoln and Gaston counties; the Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children, which serves Martin and Pitt counties; and Partners for Children and Families of Moore County, to serve Moore, Chatham, Cumberland, Hoke, Montgomery, Richmond and Scotland counties.

Across these three partnerships, Smart Start plans to enroll around 300 children within the span of the pilot program. 

The success of the pilot program will be measured directly in terms of the goals outlined by the legislature and families’ and employers’ reduced costs. The program’s success will also be determined by Tri-Share’s contribution to business sustainability and the process' ease for regional intermediaries.

“That access to early childhood education by far creates a triple bottom line," Jackson said. "It benefits all of us. And when families can’t afford the cost of it, or when small business owners aren’t opening up programs to make it available, we all lose.”

A potential beneficiary, McCenzie Windley, is a mother of two children under five in North Carolina. Windley said Tri-Share would allow her family to be able to save more money for times of need.

"You could be completely struggling, but you have to work to pay your bills," she said. "That's a bill that has to be paid — it's a non-negotiable one."

To be eligible for the direct subsidy, a parent must be employed by a participating employer, have a household income between 185 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty line, and be ineligible for other federal childcare subsidies.

Jackson said Tri-Share’s target group is primarily the working and middle class, as it serves the vast majority of people who do not qualify for other federal subsidies, yet still struggle to cover the costs of childcare.

Sandra Soliday Hong, a senior research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institutealso said Tri-Share will be successful in engaging a diverse set of community members. 

“The early care and education community, providers that are local owners and operators of programs in their community, are largely comprised of women of color who come from the communities that they serve,” she said. “It’s a really unique, small-business portion of our economy that we don’t leverage or support sufficiently.”

Jackson said early childhood education benefits everyone, not just families. She said all families should be able to turn to a Smart Start and get the support they need.

“I’m certain this will be successful,” Jackson said.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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