hawkins@growyourgiving.org Individual & Family Giving

Exploring Early Childhood Care and Education: A Conversation with Shannon Rudisill

In this episode of the Grow Your Giving podcast, Senior Philanthropic Advisor Whitney Hosty explores the early childhood care and education landscape with Shannon Rudisill, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative. Whitney and Shannon discuss the many challenges educators and families currently face and how philanthropists can play a role in filling the funding gaps.

Listen to the conversation online or wherever you find podcasts. A transcription of this episode can be found below.

All episodes of the Grow Your Giving podcast can be found at greaterhorizons.org/podcast.

Authored by: Ashley Hawkins, Content Specialist


Episode Transcription

Introduction:
Welcome to the Grow Your Giving podcast, powered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and our national entity, Greater Horizons. We aim to make giving convenient and efficient for donors through donor-advised funds and other charitable giving tools. The Grow Your Giving podcast discusses philanthropic topics to help you enjoy giving more. Find us online at greaterhorizons.org.

Whitney Hosty:
Hi, I’m Whitney Hosty, Senior Philanthropic Advisor with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and our national entity, Greater Horizons. I have the opportunity to work closely with our donors to help them support charitable causes that they care about, and also to oversee our donor education programming. I’m delighted to today by Shannon Rudisill, executive director of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative. Today, Shannon and I will have an opportunity to explore the early care and education landscape and especially to visit about opportunities to help provide high-quality care and education for children aged zero through five in our community, and what some opportunities might be for philanthropy to expand support for children in these critical years. Shannon, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m looking forward to taking a quick dive into early care and education topics with you. Before we get started, could you tell us a little bit about your background and your current role?

Shannon Rudisill:
Sure. It’s my pleasure to join you, I should say. And I really love working with you as part of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative. I have 25 years of experience working in child and family policy at the national level with a focus on early care and education. And I started this work right from the beginning of my career because I had some jobs in college during summers and a work-study job that showed me the tremendous disparities in child care centers. While I was working as an assistant teacher during college and I just thought, wow, I want to work on remedying this disparity that I’m seeing between the places I’m getting hired. And that led me down a path toward policy to try to make bigger systemic change. The bulk of my career has been at the US Department of Health and Human Services, where I worked as both a civil servant and an appointee in the Obama administration, working on child care, Head Start, home visiting and other related programs. And currently, I direct a funder collaborative called the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative.

Whitney Hosty:
Could you please tell us a little bit more about the collaborative and who are the members and what the collaborative does?

Shannon Rudisill:
The Early Childhood Funders Collaborative is a hub and a connector for early childhood funders at all levels. Meaning we have local, state and national funders in our group. We’re growing. We’re up to 50 members, but we also have a wider network of local and state funders that are interested in early childhood and stay connected with us, and even join local and state-based funder collaboratives about early childhood. Our main focus is helping our funders find the most effective strategies to influence research, policy and practice.

Shannon Rudisill:
And one of the hallmarks of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative is that our funders think about early childhood systems, which means the way that health, mental health, family support and education all come together in an early childhood system for children and families, because we think all of those components are necessary for a child and family well-being, parenting support, health and mental health, and early care and education. Generally, it’s a learning and alignment group. We do have one pooled fund right now. We’ve had some other pooled funds in the past. And our pooled fund right now is called the Raising Child Care Fund. And it’s aimed at increasing grassroots organizing and parent and educator voice in child care policy.

Whitney Hosty:
When I think back to my first personal interaction in the sector, it was 2010 when my now 11-year-old was an infant. And so like many other parents out there, we started on a search for where would be a safe place for her to stay during the day while we were working. And it was hard. And we were very fortunate to find a great program for her to participate in. But thinking now fast forward to really 2020, when I think this really became a topic that was at the forefront and it became an issue that was impacting not only parents but really the broader community. And I know that there’ve been a lot of stories recently about what the pandemic has done to the sector. And I think it’s certainly been in the news a lot more than it has been previously. Could you talk a little bit about the early care and education system and what are some of the challenges out in the sector that have really been exacerbated over the last year?

Shannon Rudisill:
Whitney, you’re right. The pandemic has really decimated the early care and education sector. And I think part of it points to the weaknesses overall, the fact that we have not invested as a country in a stable, sustainable early care and education sector prior to the pandemic. And you can see just even comparing and contrasting some of what happened in the K-12 education system with what happened in early care and education. So unlike K-12 public schools, most early care and education providers are small private businesses. And when the pandemic hit, many closed, their revenue basically evaporated overnight, they were operating at a loss or on thin margins in the first place. They couldn’t pay their bills. They couldn’t pay their staff. All of our years of underfunding was just immediately in the spotlight.

Shannon Rudisill:
And I don’t want to say that schools were in a good position, we all know schools weren’t in a good position, but as you just look at the financing and the sustainability in particular in schools, states and districts kept paying their school bills. They kept paying their school payroll, maintaining their buildings, and even in really bumpy days, when school was closed or they were shifting service models, they had their money to pay their people. Child care, being based on a bunch of small businesses, was not in that position. Parents were out of work, they couldn’t pay, so if that was the main source of revenue, it wasn’t flowing and there’s no cushion. So I think you can see that. I also think there’s a huge equity issue here because many of the small businesses, and this should be a strength, are women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses. And so that created even another equity problem.

Shannon Rudisill:
They’re less likely to be able to secure capital from banks and traditional ways. The Paycheck Protection Program that we originally thought was going to be a huge help to the sector, we found out so many people had trouble accessing it. And when there was analysis, it was really across the board. It wasn’t specific to early care and education, but women-owned businesses, home-based businesses, really tiny cottage industry businesses had trouble accessing those PPP. And you’re just describing what the child care sector looks like when you describe that kind of business. So I think that’s really what we’ve seen and you’re right, what this has called out is that high-quality child care and early learning is essential for parents to get and keep a job or advance their education and to give kids a strong start for school and for their future, people are starting to realize we need it to rebuild the economy.

Shannon Rudisill:
I think the other thing that people find a little hard to understand about this sector is they know that parents are paying a lot and I think they certainly know now, child care workers aren’t making any money. In fact, many of them are living in poverty. And this is puzzling. This is puzzling for parents who are paying so much, but the truth is this is just the economics of it. When you’re talking about babies, it’s a really small ratio of caregivers and teachers to kids. And you’ve got people at all different income levels trying to pay into this. And they don’t have a lot of money. And the subsidies that come from the states have traditionally been much less than it costs to do the job. And so all of that has had a big spotlight shown on it as part of the pandemic. And I think it’s increased our understanding that public investment is essential to solving this dilemma. Parents can’t pay anymore. It’s going to really take more public investment.

Whitney Hosty:
So you’ve just outlined a lot of challenges. And if it was hard to find a high-quality early learning program prior to the pandemic, what does that look like now? Are there more spaces available because kids aren’t attending programs or are you hearing of centers and providers closing and getting out of the sector? What are you seeing?

Shannon Rudisill:
So we definitely heard about a lot of providers getting out of the sector. I mean, when it comes to home-based, we were already losing a lot of family child care prior to the pandemic. The numbers were just dropping by tens of thousands. I’ve heard that some of the centers have closed, but others have actually pivoted to offering more school-aged care because schools were closed. And it’ll be interesting to see what happens as schools reopen because we need more school-age care too. So we need to build a system that has spaces for babies up through school-agers. The American Rescue Plan comes into being, and I think that there are some important investments in that American Rescue Plan that could help, but it needs to be really thoughtfully spent. So the American Rescue Plan includes money to stabilize the system like grants to providers to try to help them recoup, especially if they went into debt, trying to stay in business and to try to allow other workers, other moms and dads and family members, to go back to work with their child care in place.

Shannon Rudisill:
If we think about it right, it also sets us up for making long-term fixes. It’s not enough money to make long-term fixes, but it is a start at recognizing the costs and to looking at what wasn’t happening before that could be happening after. The money is a mix of money in the government’s largest subsidy programs, the Child Care Development Block Grant, and the stabilization grant program. And it’s about $50 billion that’ll be coming to the states for child care. A lot of the states also changed their policies during the pandemic in ways that are better for families and providers. And we’re really hoping that they’ll keep those policies in place like paying providers even when a kid needed to be absent, because of course the teacher needs to get paid and the classrooms open, even if the kid has the flu or something. And so we’re hoping that states will take this opportunity to look at the emergency policies they put into place that actually are better policies and to keep them.

Whitney Hosty:
So $50 billion, that’s a lot of money and certainly more than the philanthropic sector may be able to provide on an ongoing basis. So as we talk today and think about how can philanthropy support those states that are deploying all of these federal funds, where do you see that philanthropic support may be able to be the most beneficial?

Shannon Rudisill:
That’s a great question. And that’s what we think about at ECFC all the time. And I think we can talk about it in the context of the rescue plan and then we could also talk about it ongoing because that’s how we think at ECFC. The funders at ECFC know that just like they don’t provide all the K-12 education in the United States or all the healthcare in the United States, there is a role for philanthropy alongside bigger public money. And so that’s what we’ve been thinking of. When it comes to the rescue plan, we’re recommending a strategy of partnership with public partners and using philanthropic dollars for things that are more difficult for the states, and I’ll say the tribes because I’d like to talk about tribal communities a little bit too, for the states and tribes to do.

Shannon Rudisill:
So a couple of those. First, human capital capacity. This program has tended to sit in agencies that also are running very big things like Medicaid. And that means that they’re frequently not the top priority for a cabinet secretary. Not that they’re neglected, it’s just if you’re also running Medicaid in a pandemic, you have a lot of programs to run or you’re running housing. They don’t tend to have staff that are as large as some of the programs and now it’s their moment. And so one thing to think about is how philanthropy can partner with either city government, state government to build up human capital to do this right. And examples that we’ve seen, we have quite a few foundations that have actually funded positions in state government before to really work on something that the state government was going to have difficulty resourcing.

Shannon Rudisill:
Now, there can be bureaucracy that can be slow. Other things that we’ve seen work is we’ve seen foundations basically hire consultants to work at the behest of the state on what the state needs. Also, foundations can give to intermediary groups that are working really closely with the state on implementation that could look like a child care resource and referral agency or a big multi-service agency, depending on different communities have different intermediaries. But I think focusing on the human capital is something that foundations might not think of. They might be thinking of taking bites around the edges, but if we don’t have the right analysis and thought into how the public money is getting spent, we’re going to miss the opportunity to make transformative change.

Whitney Hosty:
That’s a great point. Do you have any examples where in a state or a city and community in the past where there has been that targeted philanthropic investment to increase the capacity to deploy those dollars?

Shannon Rudisill:
Yeah. A few examples, in Connecticut, the Connecticut Early Childhood Funders Collaborative has a history of working very tightly with their state department. And some of the things that they’ve done, they’ve funded a finance consultant for several years to basically be available to the state on strategic financing. And because that relationship is already there, they will continue it and it’s available now. And so I think that’s the thing. I think another thing Connecticut has done, which hopefully we’ll talk about a little more too, is they’ve funded parent consultants to the state. Actually paid parents to be part of the policy-making process. Illinois has recently had some success with that same kind of thing, having parent advisors that are paid by the philanthropic sector, because we all say we want parents to shape things, but it’s not really fair to expect them to do it when they’re low-income parents juggling multiple jobs and child care without some pay to do it.

Shannon Rudisill:
So those are some examples. The other thing I’ll say is that state administrators of programs are going to need partnership at a higher level from their executive branch, from the governor’s, the state legislature might need to pass some legislation to make this work. And there are different ways that people have done that. I know some foundations have helped governor’s offices have early childhood expertise directly to the governor which helps elevate it in the state. And the example of Texas, Texas has a funder collaborative focused on education. It’s very powerful in Texas and they actually fund education for the legislators. Every week that the legislature is meeting, there is a weekly luncheon, an education luncheon, funded by the Texas education foundations. And they bring in speakers and they serve lunch to legislators and it’s very well attended. So I think that there are some of these kinds of strategies people can use.

Whitney Hosty:
Thanks. Those are some great examples. You mentioned earlier, some of the unique opportunities in tribal communities. Could you talk a little bit more about what needs are there and how approaches might be different than some of the states?

Shannon Rudisill:
This is one of my favorite things to talk about because I feel like it is a hidden secret, a hidden gem, which is in the world of child care funding, most tribes in the United States that are federally recognized, which is way up over 560, participate in the federal child care program. And they get grants to implement child care in their communities. Some are very large and have very sophisticated infrastructure, some get a very small amount of money, just a few tens of thousands of dollars. And the person who’s running it runs three or four other tribal programs. But in this case, this can be a real game-changer. And the things that I’ve seen in tribal communities that are so exciting are language and culture-based early childhood programs. And there are quite a few models where through intergenerational connections with tribal elders, bringing the seniors in, they’ve kept the language and culture alive through early care and education programs with the younger families. I’ve seen them bring back traditional foods and get the food programs to pay for them to serve traditional foods in their child care programs.

Shannon Rudisill:
I’ve seen outdoor play spaces that are built off of native gardens and indigenous plants. In one tribe in Minnesota, they actually hired a landscaper and they realized that most of the plants that were being used in their community overall were non-native species that would not have there. And the landscaper did research and at the child care playground, it was the pioneer for the whole reservation in bringing back native species and native plants and native foods. So I just want to say, we always say we want to take an asset-based blends and really to our work, as opposed to strengths-based, tribal early childhood is a fantastic place to do strengths-based work. It’s not something that you can rush into. You have to build a relationship, but I would encourage people to think about becoming aware of the tribes and their service area. And at ECFC, we’re starting an affinity group around this and we can connect people with experts if this is something they want to learn more about.

Whitney Hosty:
I just want to come back to your comments about hearing parent voices and really how those voices could help to drive some of the improvements and enhancements that are coming in the sector. Can you talk a little bit more about what that looks like and where you’ve seen parental involvement and voices be especially successful with various strategies?

Shannon Rudisill:
Definitely. This is something that I think is growing a lot and I’ve got to say, we should do it because we want to do it because it’s the right thing to do. But I also think part of the reason the system isn’t working very well right now is because it hasn’t been done in the past. So I think we should do it because it’s the right thing to do, but also I think it’s an effective thing to do and it will increase our effectiveness. I also think that it will help us increase social change to have families like that. So I would say especially for folks who are working directly with particular programs, the place to look is Head Start.

Shannon Rudisill:
Head Start is our pioneer on this. The federal regulations for Head Start because Head Start’s a federal to local program with a set of a rule book, federal regulations, so is that there has to be a policy council where parents make a lot of decisions about the actual structure of the program, the service hours, the curriculum. Definitely, it plays to look for a model. And I see us growing outside of Head Start, more community councils, more organizing of parents to have input not just in the program level, but also in the policy level. So Illinois has a council that I mentioned. I mentioned the Connecticut model. Our Raising Child Care Fund is funding grassroots organizers in 12 different states to actually build power with parents toward getting change in policy.

Shannon Rudisill:
A lot of times the thing we’re learning from that is the groups we’re working with have won on some other family-related policy. Maybe they’ve won paid family leave in the state legislature. Maybe they’ve won paid sick days for people who are going to work sick or can’t take off to take care of their sick child, and they said, “Hey, we understand that we have some power here. We’re voters with power, we want to take on child care next.” And what they’re doing is they’re very savvy with social media, very savvy taking parents to meet with the legislators. There’s a great example in Washington State called the Washington State parent ambassadors. The Washington state parent ambassadors talk directly to legislators, write up ads. And these are parents who are living in poverty or working a low-income working-class job.

Shannon Rudisill:
And for philanthropy, the thing that we have to realize is, one, we have to pay people to do that. Just like you and I are getting paid. We have to pay people to do that. We pay professional advocates, but then we don’t pay parents because we think, well, but of course they should want to do this because they’re being affected by it. But the advocates, this is their job. And we’re realizing there’s a lot of equity issues with that, because advocates tend to be, I’ll just call up myself, white middle-class women like me who have a lot of access, parents less so. So if we really want their voice in it, we’ve got to pay. So I really encourage philanthropists to look at their funding next and try to find organizations that are connecting directly with parents and also realize that they may not have the grant writers you’re used to, or the data that you’re used to. And we’re learning more about ways that they can measure their power that are authentic to them.

Whitney Hosty:
That’s a great point. And it does, I think, often take more time and work but at the end of the day, once you go out and just keep talking, I’ve found you can learn so much by having conversations with the center directors and those who are maybe doing home visitation programs that are really out and visiting with individuals and families in the communities. You’ve touched on several of these, but I’d love to hear from you a little bit more before we wrap up about what are some other priority areas in early care and education where a philanthropic investment might be able to help move the needle?

Shannon Rudisill:
There are a few areas that we just touched on, but didn’t talk about what funders could do. So, one that I think is really ripe right now is home-based child care and home-based child care businesses. And as I mentioned, they’ve been shrinking over time, but with the pandemic, there’s a huge interest in smaller groups, in neighborhood-based groups, and in the, quite frankly, tight pods of children. Sometimes home-based care providers are also a great option because they can care for multiple ages of children. You have an infant, got a school ager and they can be together. They have flexible hours, a lot of times strong relationships between the provider and the families. So there’s been a long waited rebirth in the movement around what we call family child care networks.

Shannon Rudisill:
And this is a way to help support all these small home-based businesses by pulling them together with a hub network that maybe helps with the backend business, the billing, the collection because if you’re a person taking care of kids in your house, you’re buying the food, you’re cooking the food, you’re recruiting, you’re marketing, plus taking care of the kids, people are working 60 hours a week. So we’re examining these… Well, not examining, they’re proven.

Shannon Rudisill:
They just hadn’t taken off for years and years and suddenly those of us in the field were like, “They’re finally taking off these family child care networks, where there can be staffed in a hub that actually can do a lot of things. They can help with training. They can help keeping with licensing. They can provide subs who actually get a day off, or if you’re sick, they help one of the other family child care people take your kids so you actually can be sick and not be caring for kids, which isn’t good for anybody, but frequently they do take a philanthropic investment or a government public-private partnership between philanthropy and a local government or the state to get off the ground and even to be sustained.”

Shannon Rudisill:
But I think it’s a big area of growth. I highly recommend it. Couple other areas. This may not be exactly what you asked about but I think it’s something that people really should think about if they’re using a two gen frame, which is students, college students especially who are parents, while they are going to school and I think that research is showing that this is a tremendous population of our college students, 25 or 30%. It’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to finish. And given the student debt crisis, if you don’t finish, then you might be carrying debt and not have the degree. So there are a lot of programs emerging now, usually with community colleges, which are great engines of social mobility. And I think it’s a great area for philanthropy, with some models to support college students, or high school students, but who are parenting while they are getting their degree and possibly while they are also working and it has great multi-generational payoff.

Shannon Rudisill:
And I’ll give you one more. Another thing that is very hard to get funded, and it is very puzzling, is general family resource centers. Family resource centers, they’re platforms in a neighborhood or in a community for all kinds of services, parenting groups, emergency help, English as a second language classes. I think the reason that they have trouble being funded is there’s no dedicated federal funding stream specifically for them and they’re a springboard for all kinds of other services rather than necessarily the services that they’re the backbone, they’re the backbone for the services.

Shannon Rudisill:
And in the pandemic, one thing that we have seen is the tremendous value, who was able to pivot and do what was needed? Family resource centers, because if the community needs food, they’re there, they’re the backbone, they bring them the food. If people have child care closed and they just need a place to provide basic needs and to take data on what’s happening, they could pivot because they’re not locked into one service model, but that also means that they don’t have dedicated funding. So, that’s another example I would call out.

Whitney Hosty:
Shannon, before we wrap up, I do want to come back to one of the most critical components in the whole early care and education picture, and that’s the teachers. And thinking about what supports are needed for them, what else could philanthropy do to support that educator workforce pipeline? Could you talk a little bit more about that for us?

Shannon Rudisill:
Yeah. And I’m so glad you brought that up because one thing that the pandemic also laid bare is the working conditions and the pay situation of early childhood teachers. And one of the things that was most striking and honestly infuriating to me is that we set up care for essential workers. Many places closed, but many others did not, and a lot of child care providers don’t have any health insurance. So we were asking them to come work for poverty wages with no health insurance so everybody else could go to work. And so that just really unmasked the unfairness. So I would say that there’s a bit of a evolution in the way that we’re thinking about funding for child care educator support. And the truth is we’re going to have to have the billions, the 50 billion. We really need to be sure that some of it goes to worker pay and that we get money over time for worker pay.

Shannon Rudisill:
But for our philanthropists, so what does this mean for you? Because unless you are a very deep-pocketed philanthropist, you may not be able to tackle the compensation problem on your own. But I would say that we’ve had a lot of philanthropic involvement in teacher pathways and getting credentials and getting degrees and better training. And the truth is without more public money coming in, those have not resulted in increases in pay. So we previously had this idea that if we could get people college degrees in other fields, the pay will go up. And instead, we found we do ask people to get degrees, we do have funding, philanthropic and public, to help people get maybe associate’s degrees or other and pay doesn’t go up because the market is broken. So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us that when a philanthropist is thinking of engaging in a training or other kind of program, they should be aware of a couple of things.

Shannon Rudisill:
They should look at the overall system and say, “Okay, I have this much money, I can fund this kind of teacher training program or whatever.” Is there going to get better working conditions? That’s something actually that can be done. We could make it so that people actually have floaters in their programs so teachers get breaks, that they have time for reflective supervision, that they have time to actually go to the bathroom. So I think if we can start narrowing up in our teacher training funding a heart for teachers, I also think funders could use their social capital. And this is a bold move, but we have funders that do this, ECFC, state funders, not just big national funders, that go to the state legislative people or the people running the state program and say, “Look, I’m happy to fund this training program or to put money into this special teacher pathway articulation agreements that mean that you can move credits between institutions,” whatever you might be funding.

Shannon Rudisill:
But I don’t want to do it if people are going to stay in poverty at the end. So I would like the state to increase the reimbursement rates or to give grants to the programs to raise the pay when I do this. And I know that may sound bold to some listeners, but I don’t think that philanthropy can tackle the poverty wages program on our own. And I also don’t think it’s okay to go on the way we’ve been going. So if you can use your leverage and your social capital, I would do that. I think you can find work organizing too, which is also very bold, but we have had places where they funded actual organizers knocking on doors organizing for the government to change the pay structure so wages could go up.

Whitney Hosty:
Well, you’ve provided really great examples and ideas of just a variety of ways that donors and funders can really invest in the entire landscape of early care and education, and I really appreciate that. Before we wrap up, is there anything else that you’d like our listeners to know about supporting early care and education?

Shannon Rudisill:
I would say one thing that I really love about it is there are many entry points. So if you are an education funder I think you will see in points, but also if you were a health or mental health funder, there are entry points to improving early childhood mental health consultation and programs, to working on parenting programs. If you’re a family support or parenting or child welfare prevention, there’s a way in for almost any interest you have, economic development, there’s a way in.

Shannon Rudisill:
And so I guess that’s what I would say is one of the things that is challenging about it is the complexity. But one of the things that is great about it is the number of entry points that gives a philanthropist. And when people call me, if they tell me what they’re interested in, I can almost always figure out a connection. If they want to help little kids and families, but their charter or their trustees are interested in a particular approach, we can usually make a link and we’re available. You’ll put, I’m sure, our information out as part of this, but people can come on our website or they can reach out to me and we can talk through strategies.

Whitney Hosty:
Great. And can you remind us of what is your website just to make sure our listeners have that too?

Shannon Rudisill:
It’s www.ecfunders.org.

Whitney Hosty:
Thank you so much. I know we could probably talk for another hour at least about all of the different opportunities for supporting our youngest learners, but I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing your expertise with us today. If you’ve heard anything today that you’re interested in learning more about, please do not hesitate to reach out to the philanthropic advisors at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, and Greater Horizons.

Conclusion:
To hear more from the Grow Your Giving podcast, visit us online at greaterhorizons.org/podcast. Thank you for listening.


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