Commentary

Early learning is vital to children’s development. Why is funding it such a struggle? | Opinion

Affordable and accessible child care is the key to the pandemic economic recovery, and solving the workforce shortage

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By Marian Baldini, Mary Graham, Sharon Mullings-Neilson, Leslie Spina, and Carol Wong

Even before the pandemic, the investments and funding in child care infrastructure were inadequate. Families, children, and seniors wait on long lists for care and support; with many unable to access or afford expensive services, that can match or exceed the cost of college tuition.

Each state budget season, human and social services organizations meet with elected officials to advocate for their specific social priorities.

At the beginning of the day, a legislator may hear from constituents who advocate for senior services; and by mid-morning, the next group is talking about food insecurity, and later another group that wants more support for affordable housing. Eventually the Pre-K Counts and child care advocates arrive.

Some advocates will pitch spending based on their best ideas of what might work, while others have plenty of data to back up their requests.

Each are worthy investments, but early childhood education is the first step to ensure that children grow up healthy and strong, regardless of the communities and neighborhoods they are born into. Early learning has proven data behind it: we can invest in children now or we can spend more heavily later, on adults.

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High-quality early care leads to decreased costs in special education, health care, and the criminal justice system. Research shows that 90% of a child’s brain is developed by the age of five; those first five years are critical to a child’s emotional, behavioral, and social wellbeing. The issue isn’t whether we have the data, the issue is whether we choose to use it.

If that is not enough to encourage more support for early education, we can do more; while we help children get a great start in life, we can also employ their parents, especially mothers. Pennsylvania has a workforce crisis, and we need to draw as many adults into the working world as possible.

We cannot do that if the adults parenting infants and toddlers do not have access to care infrastructure; specifically high quality, reliable support for their children. Affordable and accessible child care is the key to the pandemic economic recovery, and solving the workforce shortage.

If that is not enough, we also know that workers will not enter or stay in the early education field if the pay is equal to poverty wages. The pay for teachers and child care staff has been flat-lined for years, despite their advanced degrees and credentials. The majority of the early education workforce is made up by women, furthering the cycle of pay inequality. Each day, more dedicated and caring staff leave this field.

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Child care and early learning programs are facing unprecedented challenges in filling their positions with new high-qualified professionals; not only leaving gaps in the industry but in caring for children, and its capacity for economic growth.

There are opportunities to improve the child care system, reduce costs for families, and increase pay for teachers. Members of Congress are currently negotiating a budget reconciliation bill that would strengthen the care economy, including the nation’s child care system.

The bill could provide universal Pre-K for all children, cap child care costs for families, and provide funding to raise wages for staff. In addition to Congress, Pennsylvania has an opportunity to increase child care and Pre-K investments during the state budget process.

When we raise up strong children, we raise up hope to carry on our legacy of service; making the world a better place and solving tough challenges in innovative ways.

The first full week of April (2nd – 8th) marks the 51st anniversary of the “Week of the Young Child;” one that recognizes not only the benefits of early education but a reminder to invest into society’s most precious asset. We’re calling on Congress in addition to Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania General Assembly; it’s time to invest in our greatest resource—children.

Marian Baldini is the CEO of KenCrest, Mary Graham is the executive director of Children’s Village, Sharon Mullings-Neilson is the director of Woodland Academy Child Development Center, Leslie Spina is the executive director of Kinder Academy, Inc, and Carol Wong is the executive director of Chinatown Learning Center. All operate early learning programs throughout the Greater Philadelphia region.

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