United Way Suncoast: Early Learning Dashboard

The State of Early Learning: A Childcare Crisis

Little girl reading a book very intently

In our region, the average annual cost of childcare for a toddler is greater than the annual cost of tuition for a University of South Florida student. Only 50% of the students in our five-county footprint enter Kindergarten ready to learn. And on average, early learning educators earn $5,000 below the living wage for our area. These are just some of the indications that we’re grappling with a childcare crisis in our community and nationally. United Way Suncoast has launched this early learning dashboard to raise greater awareness, advocacy and action around supporting our childcare providers, families and youngest learners.

  • In the Suncoast 5-county region, 50% of students entering school are not ready for kindergarten as measured by the state Kindergarten Readiness (FLKRS) assessment. [1]
  • Across the state of Florida, 38% of people live in a child care desert – which is defined as any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots. 54% of rural families are living without enough licensed child care providers. [4] Child care deserts can lead to lower kindergarten readiness scores, which are shown below.
  • For a closer look at child care deserts in your region, check out these two maps from the Center for American Progress:
    1. https://childcaredeserts.org/2018/?state=FL
    2. https://childcaredeserts.org/
Family With Young Children Reading Book In Playroom Together

The Importance of Early Learning

During the first five years of life, 90% of a child’s brain develops, forming the foundation for future learning. High-quality preschool gives children a strong start on the path that leads to college or a career. Research shows that all children benefit from high-quality preschool, with low-income children and English language learners benefiting the most. Students who enter kindergarten having developed age appropriate social-emotional and educational skills have greater lifetime success.

What Affects Kindergarten Readiness?

  1. Children need to have foundational skills and developed social-emotional health.
  2. Attending a high-quality and affordable child care environment is a critical component of early childhood education, and is necessary for the financial stability of families and caregivers.
  3. Children need high quality teachers. Teachers need a safe, supportive environment that allows for ongoing training and professional development.

Current Community Conditions

Impacts of COVID-19

COVID-19 has created lasting impacts on early learning and care including fewer teachers returning to the classroom, missed educational time for children, and child care closures due to positive cases or understaffing.

Inequity in High-Quality Child Care

Not all child care sites are the same quality–with limited access to high quality care in lower-income areas.

Cost of Care

In the Suncoast region*, child care costs more than a year of in-state tuition at the University of South Florida. [2]

Rising Household Costs

Families struggle with inflation, rising costs of living, and stagnant wages. This can result in the inablity to priortize child care.
*The Suncoast region includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee, and DeSoto Counties.

**Read more about the housing crisis and find local support: https://unitedwaysuncoast.org/eviction-mitigation

Children playing with block toys


Did You Know?

There are 1.34 million kids under the age of 6 in Florida. [3]

Voluntary Prekindergarten

Voluntary prekindergarten (VPK) is a free, high-quality half-day education program for 4-year-olds living in Florida. VPK offers care for one school year or one summer to prepare students for success in school and in life. VPK helps build a strong foundation for school using age and developmentally appropriate educational materials.

VPK enrollment dropped at the onset of the pandemic, and the number of kindergarten-test takers has also decreased. Fewer students are returning to school, which can have negative impacts on the quality of their early learning and development. [7]

happy family with toddler baby playing toy railway together at home


Did You Know?

In the US, only 1 in 6 families who are eligible for subsidies for child care costs actually receive assistance. [16]

Parents and Families Balancing Act​

A Choice for Their Children

Too often, parents have to choose between quality child care and the cost on their budget. This trade-off most often affects lower-income families. Even if a low-income family were to send one parent to work with the other at home with children, they would likely be earning just above the poverty line, at an average of $33,000 per year. This is not a sustainable income for a family with children, even with the cost savings of not paying for child care. [9]

Important Facts

  • In Florida, approximately 1 in 3 families are ALICE: Asset Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. ALICE families work hard to make ends meet, but likely have little to no long-term savings or extra money for big expenses, such as child care. [10] Children in ALICE families tend to have more limited access to high quality early development, which can lead to lower performance and learning in elementary school.
  • Costs greater than a college education. 4 of 5 counties in the Suncoast region are paying more for non-infant child care than the Florida average [11]. The price of care is rising faster than the average household income. The cost of child care across all counties is greater than a year of tuition at the University of South Florida ($6,410 per year, at $211 per credit hour + fees). Infant care costs are even higher, coming in at $9,617 as the state average. [12, 13]
  • In Pinellas County, the average cost of non-infant child care in a center is $10,886, which is 19% of the median household income. [14] The First Five Years Fund indicates that this is often the case: child care expenses consume a large share of low-income families’ budgets. Additionally, child care costs are rising faster than the average family income and other household expenses [15]
Woman smiling at co-workers

How Childcare Impacts the Workforce

Access to safe, reliable, and quality child care not only affects our children’s development and ability to learn, but also affects parent’s ability to earn a living wage and overall economic security. ​

As recent as March 2022, 92,000 households in Florida reported that an adult left a job in order to take care of children. Similarly, 82,000 households reported an adult cutting work hours to take care of children. Reported from the March 2022 Census Household Pulse Survey.

The First Five Years Fund summarizes the current needs nationally:

  1. In 2020, 94% of parents adjusted their career path due to child care expenses, 42% reduced their work hours, 26% switched to another job and an additional 26% left the workforce altogether.
  2. A lack of child care causes businesses to lose an estimated $12.7 billion annually due to employee absenteeism.
  3. Working families who can’t access affordable child care lose $8.3 billion in wages annually.
  4. Access to stable, high-quality child care helps parents improve their labor productivity by increasing work hours, missing fewer work days and pursuing further education.
  5. High-quality child care that enables mothers to enter the labor market pays for itself through increases in family income. [17]
Community Leaders Reflect

Workforce challenges continue to be the biggest issue facing child care providers across the state of Florida. The impact of not having enough teachers means classrooms remain closed. Infant and toddler classrooms are the most affected. Our families are then stuck in a situation where they can’t return to work, or take new jobs, as they have no one to look after their children.


Did You Know?

The child care work force is 94% female, and disproportionately Black and Latina. [23]

In the child care sector alone, 1/3 of jobs were lost at the start of the pandemic due to centers closing. After they reopened, many workers did not return or left for higher paying jobs. [25, 26]

Teacher and Provider Benefits

In the Suncoast region, child care providers earn an average of $31,000 per year, which is $5,000 per year below the living wage for the Suncoast region [19]. An additional $5,000 per year can be the difference between financial security and falling into debt. The living wage reflects that of a single person, living alone. This is not reflective of the salary needed to support a family, which many child care workers also balance.

Why do the wages matter? Child care providers on average have earned only a high school diploma and receive only on-the-job training [18]. Although child care providers have a great impact on a child’s early development, they are underpaid for the impact they have. With limited opportunities to move up in tenure and salary, the quality of teachers is low compared to the need for experienced teachers for our children’s development and subsequent success.

Greatest Challenges and Needs for Child Care Centers

Recruitment and Training – Recruit and train talented teachers–With a shortage of teachers and a 25% loss in overall teaching staff, the remaining teachers are strained and feel undervalued. High turnover rates compound the problem.

Behavioral Health Support – The majority of surveyed teachers in Sarasota County agreed that a major classroom challenge is that childen need more behavioral health support than currently provided. Behavioral health support is important for teachers’ ability to do their job and have a safe, functional classroom.

Professional Development – Teacher satisfaction is largely driven by the quality of the center director. Center directors report a need for greater mentorship opportunities and sustainable business training in order to support their teachers. [20]

Community Leaders Reflect

This is a statistic that is sobering but historically, our early care education professionals, as compared to other professions, are actually in the bottom 2 percent in terms of their income.

Additional Resources for Parent, Caregivers, and Employers

What does Kindergarten readiness mean?

Check out this checklist to read more, and to find ideas for helping your child enter school ready to learn: https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/SCGLR-Kindergarten-Readiness-Checklist.pdf

In Spanish: https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/wp-content/uploads/SCGLR-Kindergarten-Readiness-SPA-2022.pdf

What does it mean to be Kindergarten ready?

Click the Kindergarten countdown to see the list!Kindergarten Countdown Logo

To read more about ALICE research, check out the ALICE in Focus: Children report, here: https://www.unitedforalice.org/dashboard/focus-children

Additional resources for employers:

For employers looking to create a more family-friendly work environment, check out this toolkit by the US Chamber of Commerce: https://www.uschamber.com/assets/documents/Employer-Roadmap_March-2022.pdf

Recent Legislative Wins for Early Learning:

HB 419 & HB 7011 (2021):

  • Adds kindergarten readiness testing during VPK
  • Establishes the Division of Early Learning within the Department of Education [35]
  • Promotes improved accountability for Florida’s Early Learning programs
  • Creates a coordinated progress monitoring system to identify skills deficiencies, and address them through specialized intervention
  • Establishes the Reading Achievement Initiative for Scholastic Excellence (RAISE) program to enhance early literacy

The FY 2022-23 budget:

  • Sets aside $100 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds for providers who raise instructor salaries to at least $15/hour
  • Raises the minimum wage for state workers to $15/hour, including VPK teachers. State workers also receive a 5.38% raise across the board to address inflation [36].
  • Raises the Base Student Allocation (BSA) for VPK to the highest level in program history, at $2,803 per student

Opportunities to Improve Child Care Outcomes:

Even with recent wins, there are still opportunities to improve child care outcomes:

Free, half-day VPK often leaves low-income families scrambling to pay for the second half-day of care, or unable to work a full shift. This has financial implications on the family and greater economic implications for the community. A strong support for our ALICE families is to provide child care subsidies for full day care for low to moderate income households.

The recently passed $15/hour minimum wage only applies to state workers, not all child care providers, and is still below the living wage in the Suncoast region. [37] Some VPK instructors will see increases, but not all. To offer support for all child care workers and educators, subsidize and provide additional flexible training and skills in order to raise the level of pay for their expertise.

State-wide minimum wage increases provide much needed additional income, but may push many low-income families over the benefits cliff. This means families may no longer be eligible for critical services, including the School Readiness (SR) program–an additional state-subsidized preschool program. To support our ALICE families, eligibility for state programs, such as the SR program, should be expanded to families earning a specified percentage of the State Median Income, rather than of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL).

Data available about child development and educator benefits are not disaggregated by race or ethnicity. Black and Brown students are less likely to have access to quality early learning which leads to discrepancies in kindergarten readiness and subsequent testing data. Data available in our community need to be disaggregated by race to truly and fully understand the impact of the child care crisis on our entire community, including our most vulnerable families. Further, the current funding methodology should utilize updated population data to accurately reflect the needs, cost, and benefits to the community.

What Can Our Community Do?

  • Advocate for increased VPK and early childhood funding
  • Wage increases to attract and reteain teachers
  • Professional Development for directors and teachers
  • Quality improvements for centers
  • Raise family awareness of the importance of early learning
  • Address equitable access
  • Encourage caregivers as the first and most important teacher in their child’s lives, and ensure that families with 4-year olds register for and use their VPK vouchers (read more at: https://boston.thebasics.org)


For questions or more information about this dashboard, please contact the United Way Suncoast Data Team at datateam@uwsuncoast.org.

For all media inquiries, please contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@uwsuncoast.org.

Dashboard created and maintained by the UWS Data and Marketing Teams.



1) Florida Department of Education, Kindergarten Readiness https://www.fldoe.org/accountability/assessments/k-12-student-assessment

2) First Five Years Fund, “Support For Working Families” https://www.ffyf.org/why-it-matters/support-working-families/

3) Center for American Progress, “Early Learning Fact Sheet 2021: Florida” – https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Florida.pdf

4) US Child Care Deserts: Center for American Progress – Florida – https://childcaredeserts.org/2018/

5) FL DOE data

6) National Institute for Early Education Research, “Determinants of Household Participation in Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program” (2011). 

7) National Institute for Early Education Research, “The State of Preschool 2021.” (2022). https://nieer.org/state-preschool-yearbooks-yearbook2021

8) Office of Early Learning: CLASS: Classroom Assessment Scoring System. – https://www.floridaearlylearning.com/Content/Uploads/floridaearlylearning.com/files/CLASS%20FAQ_ADA.pdf

9) United States Census Bureau: Quick Facts for Hillsborough County, Florida

10)  United for ALICE Research Center: Florida – https://www.unitedforalice.org/state-overview/florida

11)  MIT Living Wage Calculator for the 5-county region (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, and Desoto Counties) – https://livingwage.mit.edu/

12)  First Five Years Fund, “Support For Working Families”

13)  University of South Florida Undergraduate Tuition Rates (Fall 2021 – Summer 2022)

14)  United States Census Bureau: Quick Facts for Pinellas County

15)  First Five Years Fund, “Economic Data Underscores the Need for Significant, Sustained Investment in Child Care and Early Learning,” (2021).

16)  Center for American Progress, “The Build Back Better Act Substantially Expands Child Care Assistance” (2021). – https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-build-back-better-act-substantially-expands-child-care-assistance/#:~:text=Dec%202%2C%202021-,The%20Build%20Back%20Better%20Act%20Substantially%20Expands%20Child%20Care%20Assistance,many%20children%20and%20their%20families.

17)  First Five Years Fund, “Support For Working Families”

18)  Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Handbook https://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/childcare-workers.htm 

19)  United States Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics https://www.bls.gov/oes/tables.htm 

20)  Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation: Research and Findings – https://whyearlylearningmatters.org/findings/

21)  FRED Economic Data: Employed Full time, Median usual weekly nominal earninging: Wage and Salary workers: Childcare workers occupations: 16  https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LEU0254763300A 

22)  FRED Economic Data: Average Hourly Earnings of All Employees, Total Private https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LEU0254763300A 

23)  Economic Policy Institute, “Setting higher wages for child care and home health car workers is long overdue,” (November, 2021). https://www.epi.org/publication/higher-wages-for-child-care-and-home-health-care-workers/ 

24)  FRED Economic Data: All Employees, Child Day Care Services, Thousands of Persons, Monthly, Seasonally Adjusted; CES6562440001;   

25)  Ibid

26)  Vox, “When your job helps the rest of America work: Why so many are giving up on child care work and what it will mean for everyone else,” (April, 2022). – https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22977657/future-of-work-child-care-worker-shortage

27)  Division of Early Learning: Florida’s VPK Program. https://www.floridaearlylearning.com/vpk/floridas-vpk-program 

28)  National Institute for Early Education Research, “Determinants of Household Participation in Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program” (2011).

29)  Division of Early Learning: Types of VPK Programs. https://www.floridaearlylearning.com/vpk/floridas-vpk-program/types-of-vpk-programs 

30)  Division of Early Learning: Readiness Rates search https://vpkrates.floridaearlylearning.com/home/ 

31)  ALICE in Focus: Children

32)  National Institute for Early Education Research, “Determinants of Household Participation in Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program” (2011).

33)  National Institute for Early Education Research, “The State of Preschool 2021.” (2022).

34)  Vox, “When your job helps the rest of America work: Why so many are giving up on child care work and what it will mean for everyone else,” (April, 2022).

35)  Florida Phoenix, “DeSantis signs legislation to help improve early childhood literacy and kindergarten readiness rates,” (May, 2021) https://floridaphoenix.com/2021/05/04/desantis-signs-legislation-to-help-improve-early-childhood-literacy-and-kindergarten-readiness/ 

36)  ABC Action News, “Florida invests millions into voluntary pre-kindergarten programs”. (June, 2022). https://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-pinellas/florida-invests-millions-into-voluntary-pre-kindergarten-programs#:~:text=Florida%20are%20celebrating.-,The%202022%20Florida%20Legislature%20set%20a%20new%20historic%20budget%20for,an%20extra%20%24317%20per%20child.

37) Budget Includes Historic Increase for VPK Program,” (February 2022). https://www.srqmagazine.com/srq-daily/2022-02-07/18885_Florida+Senate+Budget+Includes+Historic+Increase+for+VPK+Program

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