On behalf of Maine kids and families, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Maine’s congressional delegation for their critical role in reauthorizing the Child Care Development Block Grant last year for the first time since 1996. Together, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree sent a powerful message to Congress: early learning programs are a critical investment for children, families and communities.

There is a high demand for child care in Maine. We know that 69 percent of Maine children under the age of 6 live with working parents. Because of the rising cost of child care, families are struggling to afford quality child care so they can work to heat their homes, put food on the table, and yes, pay for child care. With so many Mainers in need of a robust child care system, it is clear that our children and families are not a partisan issue.

In reauthorizing the Child Care Development Block Grant, Congress made many wonderful and much-needed changes to the child care program. However, we need Congress to put money where its mouth is and fund these necessary changes. We need Maine’s congressional delegation to unite once more and show that it truly is “champions for children” by supporting early childhood funding in the final budget negotiations.

As a member of the early childhood community for over 40 years, I was thrilled when Congress reauthorized the Child Care Development Block Grant in 2014. Not only did it reauthorize the bill, but it made some incredible changes to improve quality and safety in child care settings — changes many in the early childhood community have been advocating for years.

The goal of the Child Care Development fund is to promote family economic self-sufficiency and foster healthy child development by increasing access to quality child care for high-need children and families. Parents must go to work confident in their child’s care to be successful in their jobs, and children must show up to school ready to learn.

New federal guidelines and regulations aim to improve the quality and safety of care, ensure continuity of care and fix reimbursement rates so providers can serve more children. This is good for both parents and providers.

Over the next month, Congress has the important task of finalizing the budget for 2016. Right now, there is unprecedented bipartisan support for early learning programs in Congress. It’s time for Congress to finish the job and increase funding for early learning programs such as the Child Care Development Block Grant.

The new federal guidelines and regulations increase health and safety requirements through fingerprinting and expanded background checks of individuals who work in child care. These changes may be costly but are critical to ensuring a child’s safety. We need Congress to take child protection seriously and fund these programs.

Other improvements include increased access to professional development and critical early childhood resources to promote healthy development in young children.

All these changes sound great, and they are. In the early child care community, we are so happy with the progress being made to make early child care experiences safer and higher quality for our children. But without the necessary funding, these changes are merely gestures.

The goal of reauthorization is to provide higher quality child care without reducing the number of children served. We can do that, if Congress allocates the necessary funding.

Most young children in Maine are in group care before the age of 4. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that it is a positive experience. There is a cost to keeping our children safe, and it is worth it. Maine children are worth the investment.

Maine is working on its new Child Care Development Block Grant plan. We have an opportunity to set up a robust early child care system in Maine. With Congress’ help, we can rise to the challenge. We need Maine’s congressional delegation, Collins, King, Pingree, and now Rep. Bruce Poliquin (who was not serving in Congress during last year’s reauthorization) to show that they are “champions for children” once more and support early childhood programs in the budget negotiations for fiscal year 2016.

Margaret Leitch Copeland, Ed.D., has an over 40-year career in early childhood education from teaching children to teaching teachers. She serves as vice chair on the board of the Maine Children’s Alliance and lives in Bath.