Editor’s Note: Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand is the junior US Senator from New York. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Our nation is reckoning with its history of discrimination. Much of that conversation has rightly been focused on the systemic and institutional racism that has dictated our criminal justice and policing systems – and the way those systems have upended the lives of families for centuries.
As the Covid-19 pandemic causes disproportionate harm to communities of color, it is further exposing and amplifying these issues, and others, that have always existed in our country and often hit children hardest of all. Many American families were already greatly hampered by the child care and early education crisis in our country, which also disproportionately affects children of color and children from low income communities.
With many schools planning to operate remotely into the fall, children without the resources to connect to online classrooms are suffering. These children already start school far behind more privileged kids, and systemic issues, including funding and resource disparities, in our education sector make it exceedingly difficult for them to catch up.
Addressing those disparities from day one, through meaningful early childhood education reform, would have a wide-reaching, immediate and long-term impact. Research shows that the first few years of life are crucial to growth and development. Social, emotional and intellectual learning in those critical early years all play an important role in determining a child’s future. With many kids born into families where every parent or caregiver must work, child care providers are often the people facilitating that development.
Unfortunately, high-quality, affordable early education and child care are out of reach for far too many families. In New York, for example, according to pre-pandemic estimates, a year of child care can be as expensive as a year of in-state college tuition. That’s money many families don’t have to spend.
Even more alarmingly, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 2007 found that only one in 10 child care programs in this country are considered high quality. That means too many kids are being deprived of the early learning opportunities that would give them the life skills they need to thrive and excel.
In 1965, at the inauguration of Head Start, the national program to promote school readiness among young children, President Lyndon B. Johnson said that investing in early childhood education would “make certain that poverty’s children would not be forevermore poverty’s captives.”
That’s still true today. Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman found that for every $1 we invest in high-quality learning, our communities will see a 13% return. Those investments must include the people responsible for those returns – the child care workforce. Nearly half of the early childhood educator workforce require some kind of government assistance, be it food stamps or welfare, according to the Center of the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley. That’s unacceptable.
To make matters worse, the Center for American Progress reports that Black women educators serving young kids make only 84% of what White early childhood educators make – just $11.64 an hour, on average. Early childhood educators are teachers that shape a child’s life, and they should be compensated for that work. We need many more community teachers to be trained and paid a living wage, especially women of color. We cannot expect these teachers to help our kids learn when they can’t make ends meet for themselves.
High-quality early learning should be the expectation, not the exception to the rule. Though it’s often argued that the only way to pay teachers more is to raise the cost of care and make it unaffordable for parents, that’s a false choice. We can pay teachers more and help parents afford care if the federal government makes the right investments.
The Child Care for Working Families Act, of which I am a cosponsor, would ensure low-income parents do not have to pay an exorbitant amount of money for child care, double the number of children eligible for child care programs, incentivize states to create high quality programs and improve compensation and training for the child care workforce.
But we also need to help child care providers reopen and stay open safely in the wake of the pandemic. Facilities across the country had to close their doors, and hundreds of thousands of providers lost their jobs. The facilities that did manage to stay open are facing increased costs due to the need for PPE, reductions in class size, social distancing requirements – and more.
The Child Care is Essential Act would help facilities reopen or stay open while following new safety guidelines by providing $50 billion of funding to cover new costs and help providers with rent, mortgage and utility payments so they can keep their doors open.
Without adequate federal assistance, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, we are at risk of losing almost 4.5 million child care slots nationwide. Here in New York, that would mean that the availability of child care could drop from one slot for every four children to one slot for every eight.
Child care plays a critical role in our economy, allowing parents to go to work and molding our future workforce. Passing those two bills would make a huge difference for working families, but changing our approach to child care will take more than legislation. Corporations, businesses and philanthropic institutions looking for significant ways to make an impact need look no further than early childhood care and education.
We have the ability to change what early childhood care and education look like. And if we create a level playing field where every child has the chance to learn about peaceful problem-solving and to see the world from someone else’s perspective, we can reshape much more than just the early years of life.