A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Patti Gleason: Quality early childhood education is at center stage — and funding has to be more than a band-aid

Childcare, Early Learning, Early Childhood Education or the dirty word we never like to hear…..Daycare, whatever you like to call it I have devoted 39 years fighting to make it better. I could not have chosen a more rewarding career, despite the great frustration that comes with providing a service families desperately need but often cannot afford.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that our nation simply cannot go back to work without access to childcare. Essential employees who relied on friends and relatives during the early weeks of the pandemic have since found their piecemeal network collapsing. Their willingness to answer the call to service at great risk to their health and their families has been rewarded with little more than a parental juggling act. It has been a terrible crisis, in particular, for low-income families and communities of color. It feels right now like our child care system is at rock bottom — but this is actually the opportunity to achieve long, long, overdue reforms.

Moments of great national crises drive great changes because political leaders can no longer ignore broken systems. There have been other times in our history when our representatives understood the importance of funding childcare that meets the needs of working families. During World War II, families were eligible for childcare for up to six days a week at the affordable cost of $9-10 a week in today’s dollars. (Parents are now expected to pay $200 per week on average for an infant in childcare). Unfortunately, as soon as the war ended, childcare support ended. The only thing that did not end was the need.

Patti Gleason

Back in the 1970s, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives listened to the real needs of parents and worked to pass legislation that could make quality childcare available to every family. Their bill budgeted the equivalent of about $10 billion (today’s dollars) a strong start to an adequately funded system. But then-President Nixon quietly vetoed the bill. A country obsessed with Watergate and Vietnam barely noticed when one of the most important educational initiatives of the last half-century was quietly killed. Today, our annual federal investment in child care is about half of what that bill proposed.

For the next two decades, early childhood education struggled along on a fragile mixture of tuition and government support. Middle-class children whose mothers were often at home usually went to half-day programs; poorer children were there all day while both parents worked. A stereotype emerged that the shorter programs existed to provide real education while the full-day programs were simply babysitting for working parents. At a meeting in the early nineties, I questioned a leader at the county welfare department about how to meet the challenge of providing children with a quality learning experience at the low government reimbursement rates. The response, announced to a room full of providers, was that no one was interested in quality; the whole point of subsidized childcare was just to keep children safe while their parents were at work.

However, new thinking was spreading fast – and scientists studying brain development gave impetus to the fundamental standards we had long been fighting to achieve. Researchers like Peter Huttenlocher at the University of Chicago were discovering that 90% of brain development occurs by the age of five. Both our state and federal government realized that quality environments and experiences matter for young children. States, like Ohio, began to develop rating systems, and require more professional development, evidence-based curriculum, and qualified teachers.

It was a great leap forward in policy – but the reimbursement rates for low-income children did not increase nearly enough to meet the cost of all the new demands fell on childcare providers. The term “unfunded mandates” never had a better poster child.

This election year, quality early childhood education has finally come near center stage, along with a recognition that a child’s earliest years lay the foundation for all later learning and development. Investing in children means starting with support for mothers during pregnancy. It means providing parents the assurance that they can work all day while their children are being well cared for and nurtured. Unlike the 1940s, today America knows we are not talking about a short-term fix. We need a comprehensive approach that offers accessibility, affordability and choices for parents. There is no one size fits all.

The pandemic made unequivocally clear that our current system is broken. Now we have two choices: We can continue to put band-aids on a hemorrhage, or we can start from scratch and develop a new system that actually supports our families, children, teachers, and communities.

However, if we choose the Band-Aid approach we are just delaying the crisis. Eventually, we will see as many as 40% of quality programs closing for lack of financial support. States will relax the safety standards they’re currently enforcing to combat coronavirus, opening the door to new infections for families and early educators alike. More and more children will spend their waking hours in unlicensed programs and more children will be entering school identified with cognitive, social and emotional delays.

But what if we decide to fix the system? Well, it won’t happen overnight. First comes a temporary plan to shore up the existing framework. This means, at minimum, an additional $50 billion in flexible, dedicated funding for child care from the federal government to get us through the next several months.

Then, we need to focus on a comprehensive redesign of our system that fully funds high-quality early learning, meets the needs of working families, and includes support for family leave.

Here at Learning Grove, we start every search for solutions with three questions:

• What is best for children?

• What do our parents need?

• How do we best coordinate with other community providers to make sure all families have access to whatever health care and education they need?

All of this requires massive effort, but it is so worth all the trouble. It also requires a lot more money, but expert economists have already proven that this investment will be more than worthwhile in the long-run.

If coronavirus can propel the country down this path, future generations will be able to look back on this dark period and see a new light.

Patti Gleason is COO of Learning Grove.

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