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Early Education Should Be On The 116th Congress’ Agenda. Here’s Why

Early LearningEarly Learning
Pre-kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds.
Elaine Thompson/AP

As the 116th Congress gets underway, refiling the Child Care for Working Families Act should be on its to-do list. A 2018 nationwide analysis of the costs of child care found that it topped every household expense in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southern regions of the country.

At $20,415, the annual costs of center-based child care for an infant in Massachusetts exceeds the $16,278 charged to in-state students for tuition and fees at UMass Amherst. Two-parent families earning a median income of $121,278 in the state spend nearly 17 percent of their take home pay on child care. Similar families in California, Colorado, Nebraska, and Nevada spend at least 14 percent of their income on infant care and more than 11 percent of their income for center-based care and education for their four-year-olds.

Members of Congress are not immune to the problem. Last year, lawmakers approved $12 million in public funding to build a new 26,000 square foot childcare facility for House members and staffers. The costs of full-time care will range from $1100 and $1700 a month, described in this National Public Radio piece as “a fraction of the cost of comparable private day care in the Washington, D.C., area.”

The financial burden placed on young families seeking quality care and education for their children isn’t sustainable. In a June 2018 survey of 1,657 registered voters nationally, 83 percent of parents with children under five had “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problems finding appropriate care. At 54 percent, even most voters without young children said that finding quality, affordable child care is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem in their area.

That’s probably why support for greater public investment in early care and education is overwhelmingly popular across political divides and party lines. A 2017 survey found that 97 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Independents backed initiatives that would make early care and education more affordable.

Those survey results were born out this November, when voters in red states and blue states made it clear that the affordability and availability of quality early care and education programs for all families is a priority. In California, voters backed Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who pledged to enact universal preschool for four-year-olds, invest state monies in making childcare for infants and young children more affordable, and provide more funding for visiting nurses to new parents. His first state budget is expected to include $2 billion for early care and education programs for children age birth to five.

In Ohio, Republican Gov.-elect Mike DeWine won with a pledge to expand access to high-quality ECE to at least 20,000 children in the Buckeye State. Like Newsom, DeWine also promised to increase investment in home visiting services with a plan that focuses on first-time mothers and their children up to age three.

All told, the victors in 15 gubernatorial races prevailed by campaigning on their support for greater public investment in early education. In Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, winning candidates pledged to fund full-day preschool while others also emphasized the need to invest in the crucial years from birth to age three. In Michigan, Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer campaigned on a broad early care agenda that emphasized the “first 1000 days” of a child’s life by expanding eligibility for childcare subsidies, raising reimbursement rates for providers, and funding full-day preschool for all children. In Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan won re-election by touting his record on childcare, which includes doubling the income eligibility threshold for childcare subsidies and increasing payments to childcare providers.

Nearly every candidate running on these platforms called out the need for supporting teachers by increasing their pay and also recognized the positive impact early care and education has on a child’s life. A quality program, as Newsom noted, is a potent antidote to poverty. In addition to correlating with increased earnings over a lifetime for children from low-income families, the mothers of these children have higher incomes than those whose children are not in early care and education programs. Most significantly, children who receive quality early care and education, where the foundation for math, literacy and language acquisition is built with sequential, continuous learning, perform better in school than those who do not. This opportunity gap is obvious by kindergarten and shows up on test scores by third grade.

Last month, voters made their priorities clear at the ballot box. Now it’s up to Congress to follow up.

Anne Douglass, PhD is an Associate Professor of Early Care and Education at UMass Boston, and the founding executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation. Her latest book, Leading For Change In Early Care And Education: Cultivating Leadership from Within, was published last year.


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