The question of whether to ease credentialing requirements in North Carolina childcare centers continues to bubble up in meetings of the N.C. Childcare Commission.

At the commission’s meeting on Aug. 1, members clashed over the idea of allowing years of experience to substitute for a bachelor’s degree requirement. Supporters say the change would increase the pipeline of educators available in pre-kindergarten centers across the state at a time when the industry faces a sever labor force pinch.

“I’ve had my best teachers come from no education and no experience, and I’ve had some of my worst come from education in the field. Not everyone can fit into [the box] of education fixes it all,” said commission member Alicia Fink.

Opponents of the idea said it would put children at risk.

“My greatest concern right now is the increased number of abuse and neglect calls we’re getting because of the bodies that are in the classroom,” said Rhonda Rivers, vice chair of the commission. “We have to be so careful about our unintentional harms that we’re causing to these children … understanding what’s appropriate, understanding the developmental needs of children, is critically important for safety.”

Members of the public and representatives of advocacy organizations were also allowed to address the committee.

Sherry Melton, representing the N.C. Licensed Childcare Association, told the commission there is no link between academic achievement and the quality of childcare provided. She cited a 2015 research brief from the Administration for Children and Families, which concluded, “There is insufficient evidence to support conclusions on the associations between state infant/toddler credentials and observed quality or child outcomes in the studies reviewed.”

Melton also referenced a report from the New America Center on Education & Skills, which found, “A bachelor’s degree imposes a heavy burden on early childhood educators, especially given the realities of their labor market, nor are bachelor’s degree programs a particularly efficient or cost-effective way to prepare early educators for work. Moreover, a degree requirement is likely to exacerbate racial and class-based inequalities in the education workforce while also reducing diversity among early educators.”

Other advocates spoke against reducing credentialing requirements.

“I implore the commission that as you study the education requirements, you really think about other moms who are like me who really need teachers who understand 2-year-olds and teachers who have been educated about how to be in a group of [children],” said Jenna Nelson, executive director of the N.C. Early Education Coalition.

Anna Mercer-McLean, director of Community School for People Under Six and also the president elect of the N.C. Institute for Child Development Professionals, added, “We do not want the standards weakened. It’s time to work to find some federal and state funding that will fairly compensate the workforce and to maintain that quality system we’ve built in North Carolina and that North Carolina has been known for years.”

One of the workarounds Mercer-McLean suggested was “maybe not enrolling as many children” in a childcare program until hiring staff with bachelors’ degrees.

But commission member Perry Melton pushed back, saying, “That may sound like a good suggestion, but for the owner [of a private childcare facility], that may mean bankruptcy. The private provider situation is different. That’s the group that I’m trying to help right now and find relief for.”

Melton also asked Mercer-McLean to name the average tuition at her childcare facility in Carrboro. She responded that it was $1,120 for a four and five year old to $1,635 for an infant per month.

“You realize in rural North Carolina, that’s about twice what the rates would be in some of our childcare deserts?” Melton said.

Mary Myers, owner and operator of owner and operator of Mary Myers Children’s Center and Mary Myers’ Daycare.

The discussion on credentialing originally arose in February when Mary Myers, a 50-year veteran of the childcare industry in North Carolina, filed a petition asking the commission to allow experience in the industry to stand in for a degree requirement. The commission voted May 2 to deny the request from Myers, and solidified that vote on June 6 by voting on a written response denying the request.

Under state law, pre-kindergarten providers must employ a director who holds a four-year early childhood education degree. Unless a program has an administrator in place with the required credentials, the center can’t qualify as a North Carolina pre-K site.

But switching that requirement to a degree or the requisite number of years of experience would go a long way toward easing the labor market problems in the childcare industry, Myers said.

The change included in Myers’ petition would only apply to “established” childcare sites that have been in business for more than four years.

In addition to the degree requirements, the state also evaluates pre-K centers on a five-star rating scale. In order to participate in the state’s pre-K program, a center must maintain at least a four-star rating on the scale. Moreover, in order to serve families eligible for the Subsidized Childcare Assistance program, the business must maintain at least a three-star rating.

But the challenge is that 50% of the rating is dependent on the number of staff members with degrees. Myers pointed out that a childcare center can’t gain a four- or five-star rating without having a high number of staff members with a minimum four-year degree in early childhood education.