It’s time to redefine essential to include early childhood education | Opinion

Loranne Ausley, Tallahassee Democrat

If anyone questioned the essential nature of child care before COVID-19, their doubts certainly have been put to rest. Yet national surveys indicate that more than half of the child care businesses that were in operation in March will not survive.  And families without child care options are not going to be able to get back to work.

 Simply put, our economy cannot get back to normal without child care.

The problem here in Florida and across our country is that the patchwork of mostly private child care centers that make up our child care/early learning industry does not make economic sense – for the child care providers OR for the parents who are trying to make ends meet.

In spite of the importance of early education, the lack of public investment places most of the cost on parents of young children who have the least ability to pay. In an effort to maintain affordability for parents, the ultimate burden is shifted to early childhood professionals who are among the lowest paid workers in the country. 

Currently, there is a strong push for Congress to quickly step in and help child care centers keep their doors open. Conservative estimates say that a $50 billion investment is needed to help get the industry back on its feet while also meeting increased staffing needs to comply with health and distancing protocols for a post-covid reality.   

This is a good and important first step, but simply returning to the status quo that wasn’t working before COVID-19 cannot be the answer. Not this time. What if we used this as an opportunity to not just “bail out” the industry, but to truly transform the way we approach our nation’s system of early learning? 

I have long been an advocate for more public investment in quality child care because we know with absolute certainty that a child’s earliest years are where this investment has the most impact. By now it is pretty established science that 90% of brain development takes place before the age of 5, and a significant portion before the age of 3; so the nurturing and teaching that takes place in these early years is essential to preparing children for kindergarten and academic success later in life.

At some point in our nation’s history, we decided that the education of our children is a “public good” and today a combination of state and federal money guarantees a public education for every child in our country starting at age 5. I believe that it is well past time to make the same promise to children 0-5, when that promise matters the most.

Child care is essential to getting our economy moving again, and the quality of that child care is essential to keeping our economy moving. Perhaps this is that moment in our history when we can look back and say we finally put our youngest children first. 

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