Opinion

Opinion

Early Education Is a National Priority

By JOAN KAGAN

All of us in the broad field of early-childhood education and care were elated to hear our vital services underscored as a priority in President Obama’s State of the Union Address late last month.

As executive director of Square One, which has been providing these services since 1883, I believe the president’s remarks to a joint session of Congress shows us that our leaders are willing to spend political capital to acknowledge the value of investing in our young and vulnerable citizens.

The president stressed that child care is something that’s not merely good to have, but something that middle-class and low-income families must have. It is a message that Square One, together with our colleagues in the field, has been sharing for years, and we are ecstatic to know that the most powerful people in Washington have decided it is worthy of discussion on a national stage.

Universal child care is not a new idea. During World War II, the young men went off to war. Having women in the workforce was a national priority, and this country responded by providing universal child care. Today, in much the same way, enabling middle-class and low-income parents with young children to work and support their families has to become a national economic priority. Even as our economy continues to recover and grow stronger, families where both parents work are more prevalent than ever. And in the case of single-parent households, every parent in the family works.

A stronger economy has been good news for ‘Mary,’ who was overjoyed at finding her first professional job. Mary, who had been homeless and on welfare, first came to Square One as a participant in our Mom Squad program. This innovative model helps mothers who receive aid from the Department of Transitional Assistance engage in volunteer service at community agencies, including Square One. By performing a minimum of 30 hours per week of community service, participants can get voucher assistance to enroll their children in high-quality early-education and care programs.

While Mom Squad members work without pay to gain on-the-job training in a supportive, nurturing environment, their child is cared for at Square One. It is a great model. However, there is a problem that arises when someone like Mary ‘graduates’ from the Mom Squad and applies the skills she learned to get a real job earning a decent wage. She lifted herself and her family out of homelessness and dependency on welfare. So what is the problem? Now that she has a job, she is no longer eligible for a child-care subsidy, and she needs child care in order to work. Mary has confided in her Square One social worker that, if she cannot find a child-care solution, she may end up back on welfare.

Quality child care for five days a week often costs more than a month’s rent. Over a year, quality child care can cost as much as it costs to attend community college. A quality early-education and care experience for our children is costly when quality is (and should be) maintained. Research-based materials, professional development for teachers, a stimulating learning environment supplemented with developmentally appropriate supplies, and activities to support a child’s early learning do not come cheap.

It is a labor-intensive industry, despite the fact that child-care workers are among the lowest-paid professionals nationwide. The cost of care is particularly difficult for low-income working parents, like Mary.

Access to affordable, high-quality early education and care is a national priority if we want to help more middle-class and low-income families get ahead or avoid welfare assistance, and if we value giving every child an opportunity to enter kindergarten ready to learn. In the president’s words, child care is no longer nice to have; it’s a must-have.

Joan Kagan is executive director of Springfield-based Square One; (413) 732-5183.

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