When my son, now in college, started school in Maryland, he went to a private preschool, and only half-day public kindergarten existed. As for most young children in the United States, then and now, public early childhood education was unavailable.
Full-day kindergarten is now the norm, and 35 percent of Maryland’s 4 year olds are enrolled in public preschool, with another 15 percent in private pre-K. But the state still lags behind the national average, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Because low-income children generally have less access, they are less “school ready” by kindergarten, generally perpetuating lifelong disparities. For a state that prides itself on its public education and is also among the nation’s wealthiest in per capita income, it is inexcusable that Maryland lacks free or affordable early childhood care and education.
While New York City is rolling out its public pre-K initiative and states like Oklahoma and West Virginia enroll about 75 percent of 4 year olds, the United States overall is woefully behind about 30 other rich countries in providing public pre-primary education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet, it is widely accepted that early education improves children’s academic and social development, contributing to better outcomes in K-12 and college and higher productivity when they enter the workforce, and it helps families better balance work and family responsibilities. It is rare to find an issue that aligns educators, business, parents, economists, scientists and politicians.
Despite the many recognized benefits, the big stumbling block, as is so often in politics, is cost. Maryland spent just $109 million on public preschool for 31,700 low-income 3- and 4- year olds in 2016, less than one quarter of 1 percent of the state’s budget, with counties, other localities and the federal government chipping in more, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
When it comes to child care — which can cost more than in-state college tuition and is vitally needed to keep children safe and parents sane and in the workforce — the situation is even worse. Only 1.4 million of the nation’s 20 million children ages 5 and under benefited from meager federal and state child-care subsidies in 2015, and this is just one-sixth of those who are eligible. In Maryland, families of a mere 17,400 young children received subsidies, and they are so low that they cover the costs of just 9 percent of providers.
It would be enormously beneficial to children, parents and the economy to make preschool and child care available and affordable.
But that’s not enough.
Quality care and education require well paid, well trained and respected workers. Nearly half of America’s 2 million workers in these arenas — about 95 percent of whom are women — have wages so low that they depend on food stamps, Medicaid and other government benefits, with $13.84 the median hourly wage in 2016 for preschool teachers and $10.18 the typical pay for child care workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Low pay is compounded by the reality that their work is “so undervalued and undermined that it often is wrongly considered to be a synonym for ‘babysitting,’” said Valora Washington, CEO of the Council for Professional Recognition, which has provided a child development associate (CDA) credential to about 400,000 educators who have received classroom and on-the-job training.
Speaking of worker credentials, that too leaves a lot of room for improvement. States and localities have widely differing requirements. Parents and business leaders may want college-educated teachers and caregivers, but it’s hard to attract and retain educated workers with low pay and low prestige, and it’s very hard for less-than-college-educated workers in the field to afford and have the time to get a college degree.
U.S. businesses, politicians and labor-market experts have long talked about the need to provide non-college training and “career pathways” in which workers can obtain a series of ever-higher credentials that enable upward mobility within a profession. Early childhood education is particularly well suited to European-style apprenticeships, in which prospective workers combine classroom and on-the-job training.
A comprehensive early-childhood agenda should be front and center in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, and it needs to address access, cost and worker pay and training. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made a strong case for investing in early childhood education and care. So have policy experts ranging from the left-leaning Center for American Progress to the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Parents, educators and employers should signal that these are priorities and either that they’re willing to pay for it or want current resources re-allocated. The moral and economic arguments are no-brainers. It just takes the political will. And if we want high-quality professionals to educate and care for our children, don’t call them “babysitters.”
Andrew L. Yarrow, a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute whose fifth book will be published next year, has written extensively on issues relating to economic security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.