Founder and President, Child Care Counts
Now that we, as Americans, are adjusting to the new realities of face masks, several people have pointed out that we once thought seat belts were ridiculous and vigorously resisted wearing them. In 2020, however, at least most of us would be very uncomfortable not wearing a seat belt in a moving vehicle. Heck, I sometimes feel uneasy sitting in my parked car, without one on, if there are moving cars around me! My point in mentioning this is that Americans can sometimes be stubborn people when it comes to change – even if the change is a good idea. Once we get used to a reasonable thing, however, we embrace it as part of our collective values. It is my dream that within my lifetime, all of us will come to embrace safe, quality, affordable early care and education as a necessary and sound investment for families and for our country as a whole.
Some of you may be surprised to learn that free public kindergarten is relatively new in the U.S. and as recent as the 1960s was not the norm. In Prince Georges County, MD, where I grew up, my sister and I were the first free Kindergarten students in my family. My older brothers went but there was a fee and parents were required to volunteer regularly. My mother, a stay at home mom, realized the benefits for socialization and early learning that it provided and excitedly signed us up. Ok, so maybe she just wanted a break for half a day but I have to believe that she also thought it would give her shy, quiet daughter, a chance to explore new things and make new friends before “real school” began.
I remember being very nervous that first day with Miss Weinfeld – a young, pretty teacher sporting a lightly teased hairdo and a nice smile. During my tenure as a kindergartener I got to experience sitting in the corner once – that was the 60s - for making too much noise with my empty milk carton after snack time. Really, I was just mimicking what several other kids were doing and it was, for sure, a learning experience about not following the crowd. I was still pretty shy for several years after kindergarten but I had no trouble transitioning to first grade, had learned some valuable lessons, made new friends and figured out how to work cooperatively with others and stay out of the corner.
These days, public, full-day kindergarten is a given. Very few of us would wish for anything different. The family unit was not destroyed because of it, as some people have feared about universal pre-k, and children have mostly reaped the benefits throughout the years. Given this, it’s hard for me to understand why universal, free (or at least affordable) preschool is so difficult to bring people on board for. In my humble opinion, early child care and education, like kindergarten, should be available to anyone who wants/needs it starting at birth.
To be sure, improving the quality of early care and education and making it affordable to all is complicated and teams of experts that include noted economists and highly regarded educators, have studied the issue for decades. I don't pretend to be anything close to an expert but I know what I've seen on the ground after running a non-profit that provides child care scholarships to working families in need for the past five years. We need more federal support for sliding scale vouchers and more state investment to be able to take advantage of all available matching federal funds. We need tax incentives for corporations to open on-site child care centers and/or contribute to child care costs for their employees. We need public investment in our provider network so that we have the best quality teachers that earn a wage commensurate with their public school counterparts without driving the cost of care upward. We need accessible training programs that don’t cost an arm and a leg, for young people who want to get into the early care and education profession. This doesn't have to be an all or nothing approach, but we should start somewhere – and start now.
All of the stimulus money the federal government has doled out during the pandemic has been helpful in the short term. In the long run, however, when the stimulus money is spent, our families will be back in the same boat and our country will not have moved forward as a whole. Maybe we should stop using a band aid approach and start thinking about using funds to invest in long-term solutions that make our country stronger. I can’t think of too many things more important and worthy of investment than the education of our youngest citizens.
Is mask wearing really necessary in a pandemic? After much resistance, most of us have come to accept and embrace that it is. Is Kindergarten considered a luxury? We could save a lot of money if we eliminated it. You would be hard pressed to find takers for that proposal. We should feel the same way about affordable, quality, early care and education - starting at birth. It should become a permanent part of our country's fabric.