A Vision for Early Care and Education
Early care and education (ECE) is a fascinating field to work in. It is so multifaceted, with a plethora of stakeholder groups including children, families and caregivers, educators, program directors, and employers. I have been able to interact with many of the stakeholders throughout my Fellowship, and learn at least one new thing every day – about brain development, teaching credentials, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care’s financial assistance program, and more – and anticipate that that will be the case for my entire time working in ECE. The field is so important, and I feel grateful to be a part of the early education community!
The children involved – aged 0 to 5 – are in the most developmentally significant phases of their lives. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains that “early experiences affect the quality of [brain architecture] by establishing either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow,” with more than one million neural connections forming every second. Research finds that participating in an early care and education program as a child has positive effects throughout an individual’s life: participants are less likely to be placed in special education, have increased college graduation and employment rates, and have long-term health benefits.
It is evident that early care and education is vital to child development and life outcomes. It thus should not be controversial to suggest that all children, no matter income or zip code, should have the opportunity to access ECE. All children can access – and are legally compelled to attend – publicly funded schools (i.e. public schools) from ages five to 16, give or take a few years depending on the state. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, that is not the case in the early years. Instead, the ECE system is – as described in a Bank Street Education Center report – a “haphazard patchwork of [publicly subsidized] resources [that] leaves the rest to find care in a severely broken private-pay marketplace that few families can afford.”
A recent brief from the United States Department of Labor highlights the lack of affordability of early care and education. “In 2018, median childcare prices for one child ranged from $4,810 ($5,357 in 2022 dollars) to $15,417 ($17,171 in 2022 dollars) depending on provider type, children’s age, and county population size.” With such exorbitant costs, family contributions range from between 8% and 19.3% of the median family income; an already burdensome cost that only increases with each child. A Boston Globe analysis of the Department of Labor’s data found that all 14 counties in Massachusetts rank in the top 100 nationally for the cost of infant care, with Middlesex and Norfolk counties costing more than $26,000 annually—costs that rank in the top three nationally.
Such high expenses sometimes force parents to leave the workforce to minimize the cost of child care, a decision that often falls onto working mothers. High quality early care and education is now recognized as “a critical piece of the workforce infrastructure,” and as “fundamental to the success of… local econom[ies].” The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that “lack of access to child care in Massachusetts is resulting in at least $2.7 billion each year in lost earnings for individuals, lower productivity and additional costs for employers, and lost tax revenue for the Commonwealth.”
And then there’s the heart of ECE: the educators, program directors, and other folks associated with keeping the programs running. These folks spend their entire days educating (facilitating literacy, linguistic, and social-emotional development), navigating interpersonal conflicts over the destruction of block towers, and nurturing the kiddos so parents and caregivers can work. It is important to clarify that the high cost of care for families does not translate to high wages for educators. To the contrary—Directors know that the cost is already unsustainable, so they are loath to increase them any more to facilitate corresponding wage increases. As a result, early educators receive poverty wages. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California Berkeley, child care workers made $11.65 per hour in 2019; a wage that ranks in the 2nd percentile of all jobs. They could earn more working at a Dunkin! Early educators – who are predominantly women of color – are overworked, undervalued, and underpaid.
The CSCCE data shows that educators could leave the field and go teach kindergarten at a public school and earn $30,000 more per year. The same goes for teaching pre-kindergarten at a public school. That’s not right.
The United States spends significantly less per child on early care and education compared to other countries. Seen as a private market instead of a public good, the burden is on parents and caregivers to pay exorbitant amounts to get their kids into care. The system is broken. The system is in crisis. Children, families, educators, programs, and the economy are all affected because of the country’s lack of investment in the industry. This is an economic equity, gender equity, racial equity, and educational equity issue. It is easy not to see the forest through the trees amidst the compounding equity issues. However, at the core of it all, one fact remains: all children deserve an accessible and affordable early care and education experience, and educators should be compensated commensurate with public school educators with similar credentials and experience.
In my capacity as a FAO Schwarz Fellow at Jumpstart, I have been welcomed into early education centers where I met wonderful directors, educators, and kiddos. I have also met with legislators in the Massachusetts State House and advocated for bills that would increase educator compensation, provide direct-to-provider funding to stabilize programs, and increase the state’s financial assistance to families to help make programs more affordable.
I have the absolute privilege of working every day in service of Jumpstart’s vision that one day every child in America will enter kindergarten prepared to succeed. It’s the best job in the world.
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