Childcare advocates arrested at NC General Assembly as lawmakers ignore their calls for adequate funding

Childcare advocates arrested at NC General Assembly as lawmakers ignore their calls for adequate funding

General Assembly police speak to a childcare advocate in Spanish before arresting her. She was one of eight advocates arrested outside the door to the Senate chamber on Wednesday. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

By Michael McElroy

June 28, 2024

Federal childcare grants are set to run out this weekend, and though NC legislators provided some limited last-minute funding this week, they ignored months of urgent requests to act.

About an hour before they were arrested inside the North Carolina General Assembly on Wednesday, several clergy members and childcare advocates stood outside the legislature on the hottest day of the year and asked God for grace.

Federal childcare funding runs out on June 30, and for the last several months, the advocates had been calling, writing, and knocking on doors at the Republican-controlled legislature to implore lawmakers to do something about the looming shortfall. 

The group of advocates—including members of the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign—returned to the General Assembly for a press conference on Wednesday, because, they said, lawmakers had not heard them or didn’t care to.

“They ignored us,” Emma Biggs, a childcare provider in Charlotte, said.

If lawmakers don’t replace that long term funding, a third of North Carolina’s childcare centers will be at risk of closing and the parents of more than 100,000 children will have to scramble to find alternatives. 

The facilities that don’t close will either have to cut pay or raise prices. 

So the Rev. Rodney Sadler Jr., a co-chair of the North Carolina Poor People Campaign, asked God to do what the advocates had so far been unable to do on their own. 

“Touch their hearts, Lord,” he said. “Touch their minds, Lord. Give them a sense of grace and understanding … of the need to be sensitive to those who are most vulnerable.”

After the press conference, Sadler and a dozen of the advocates filed one by one into the legislature and made their way to the large, brass doors of the Senate chamber. They chanted and sang until the General Assembly police arrived and told them that someone had made a noise complaint, and that they’d have to lower their voices, leave, or face arrest.

“For some of us here, we can’t in good conscience leave this building,” the Rev. Rob Stephens of Repairers of the Breach, told police. “There is a greater law being broken right now.”

Sadler began to repeat his prayer.

“We call on you dear God to touch the hearts of our legislators,” he said.

The officers surrounded him, placed his hands in zip ties, and led him away. 

The rest of the protesters began to sing as they waited their turn. 

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Eight protesters, including several clergy members, were arrested inside the North Carolina General Assembly building on Wednesday while loudly demanding that lawmakers address the childcare funding cliff that could cause a third of the state’s childcare centers to close and leave the parents of 100,000 children scrambling to find alternatives. The protesters, part of a larger group that included the Poor People’s Campaign and Repairers of the Breach, gathered outside the doors to the Senate chamber and demanded the legislature replace the federal funding that is set to expire on June 30. Without new funding, childcare centers will have to decide whether to cut pay to teachers, raise costs for parents, or close entirely. Republicans have included some funding in the competing budget proposals from the House and Senate, but have not come to an agreement. Their seeming lack of urgency, the protesters said, speaks volumes, as does the refusal by Republican leadership to meet with the groups after their many calls, emails and letters over the last several months. General Assembly police told the protesters that there had been a noise complaint and gave them several warnings to both quiet down and leave before moving to arrest them. “For some of us here, we can’t in good conscience leave this building,” the Rev. Rob Stephens of Repairers of the Breach, told police. “There is a greater law being broken right now.”

♬ original sound – Cardinal & Pine

A delayed response

The federal funding, part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, provided billions in childcare stabilization grants across the country, which ensured childcare centers could stay open as children stayed home. North Carolina centers got $1.3 billion, and many of them used the money to increase teacher pay.

Childcare advocates across the state have been asking Republicans, who have a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, for $300 million to ensure centers can continue to pay fair wages and stay open. The money that Republicans have included so far in the House and Senate versions of budget adjustments propose less than half that amount, around $135 million. But Republicans in the two chambers have not been able to reach a budget deal.

If Republican lawmakers were in any way unfamiliar with the importance of childcare or the consequences of their delays, the advocates said in the press conference, they were happy to help educate them.

“Investing in childcare is a triple play,” Nancy Rogers, a founder of Build Equity in Early Childhood Education Through Awareness, said. “It helps children learn and grow; parents get back to work; and employers hire and keep the workers they need.”

A couple of hours after the advocates were arrested, the NC House passed an amendment to a separate appropriations bill providing $67 million to help childcare centers through the end of the year. The vote was 115-0.

On Thursday, the Senate passed its version of the bill. 

So for now, some payments will continue. But slowing down as you speed toward a cliff does not necessarily prevent you from driving over it, the advocates said. 

State lawmakers have known about the problem since early last year, Stephens said in the press conference.

“For over a year and a half, this General Assembly has consistently made a decision to concoct, arbitrarily,

a childcare crisis,” he said. 

“We are coming back today to give them one last chance to look inside themselves and find some sense of humanity.”

RELATED: Childcare provider: We Need Help from NC Lawmakers

‘Who would throw their children to the sharks?’

Neither $67 million nor $135 million is enough, childcare providers and advocates said.

“This amount may provide some temporary relief, but it is unlikely to fully address the funding needs of childcare providers or the families who rely on their services until January,” said Kimberly Shaw, the founder and president of A Safe Place, a childcare center in Raleigh.

Without a sustainable funding source, childcare centers will have to decide whether to cut pay for teachers, raise costs for parents, or close entirely, said Beth Messersmith, the campaign director for the North Carolina chapter of Moms Rising, an education advocacy group.

Like with any enterprise, higher pay attracts better talent, and many childcare providers, especially in rural or low income areas, were unable to pay their teachers competitive wages before the pandemic. In many areas, the wages weren’t even livable, Messersmith said.

“Before these grants, childcare teachers were making $12 an hour—$12 an hour, y’all, working 40 hours a week,” Messersmith said. “You can’t make ends meet on that.

The grants, she said, raised salaries for childcare teachers to not quite a livable wage, but closer.

But while higher pay is crucial to keeping qualified teachers, facilities can’t simply dump any extra costs on parents, she said.

“Childcare workers cannot afford to make less,” she said, “but the reality is that parents cannot afford to pay more.”

Childcare costs parents in North Carolina an average of $800 a month for an infant, and nearly $680 a month for a 4-year old, according to a recent study by Tootris, a national education and childcare focused tech company.

That is simply unaffordable for many North Carolinians. 

It should not have taken lawmakers this long to act, Messersmith argued. Their lack of urgency, she said, was telling.

“There are lawmakers in here who have said, ‘Oh that’s OK, we’ll come back in September,’” in response to complaints that Republicans had not yet agreed to budget changes, including the childcare funding. 

“Hear me now – September is too late,” she said. 

If the expected third of childcare centers close, 155,539 children would lose a safe place to learn and grow, Messersmith said. 


“If any of us standing here today saw a wagon full of children headed towards a cliff – which of us would not rush to save those children?”

Shaw, the childcare provider, echoed Messersmith’s dire warning, making clear that centers like hers face catastrophe unless the General Assembly acts immediately.

“We will drown, we have been in deep waters for a long time, this is just enough to keep the strongest programs floating in dangerous waters,” she said. “This is America, who would throw their children to the sharks?”

RELATED: Childcare funding is set to end, but a solution is ‘absolutely doable,’ Congresswoman Deborah Ross says

‘We will not be ignored’

The Poor People’s Campaign and Repairers of the Breach, organizations co-founded by the Rev. William Barber, showed up at the legislature on April 24, too, the first day of this year’s short session. 

Dozens of protesters marched through the halls that day chanting and knocking on doors to the legislative offices, demanding that lawmakers adequately fund schools, childcare centers, and anti-poverty programs. 

Republican leaders Sen. Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore ignored their requests to meet, organizers said. 

So the protesters told the lawmakers’ legislative staff that they would be back on June 26.

“We have held up to our promises that we were coming back, today,” Biggs said at the press conference.

“We are back and we will not be ignored,” she said.

When they got to the second floor of the legislative building after the press conference, most of the group drifted to the side as Stephens, Biggs, Sadler and five others stood with their backs to the closed Senate chamber door, which is solid brass and weighs 1,500 pounds

There was no violence, screams, or threats, but the advocates chanted loudly.

“Speaker Moore,” they chanted, “what are you scared of? Why won’t you meet?”

The police were calm and polite as they gave the advocates several warnings that they would be arrested if they didn’t leave.

After the group said again that they would not leave and Sadler began his prayer, officers asked each if they knew their rights, then one by one led them away, their hands bound. 

RELATED: NC Democrats introduce a ‘Children’s Bill of Rights’

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION
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