How do we increase the availability of early child care for working parents? What are the most important conditions for safe and appropriate early childhood education? Do we want Maine’s programs to be educational, high-quality places?
On Wednesday, the Health and Human Services Committee of the Maine Legislature is scheduled to hear public testimony related to these questions as lawmakers consider proposals around child care licensing rules. The hearings will begin deliberations on these important issues that will continue for weeks, first in committee and then in the full House and Senate.
At the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, we think about these questions all the time. We promote high-quality early learning for all children, birth through age 8, by connecting practice, policy and research.
We want parents to have many wonderful choices for their children while they work. We want early childhood professionals to be supported and valued for the important job they do. We want young children in Maine to have the best possible start in life.
But Mainers should be wary of policies that exert pressure to keep costs unreasonably low.
For example, one bill — LD 1474 — under consideration by the Health and Human Services Committee would remove staff qualifications at child care centers and permit one adult to care for a larger number of children. It would be highly inappropriate to allow one adult to care for six infants, seven 1-year-olds, or 12 2-year-olds.
LD 1474 and LD 1423, another bill under consideration, both allow a child care provider to employ a new teacher up to 90 days before receiving a background check. These proposals put at risk our children’s health and safety by moving us further away from national standards of quality early care and education.
There are three bills to exempt certain providers from regulation: LD 1474, LD 1423 and LD 765. Under current law, a person can provide child care in their home for up to two children in addition to their own without being licensed. LD 1474 and 1423 propose to raise this to four children, and LD 765 would allow for the care of five unrelated children without any oversight.
These bills seem to assert that licensing and regulations are not necessary in early childhood education. This is just not true. “Appropriate regulation not only helps define and enforce health, environmental and program standards but can also ensure some degree of equity for parents and children in poorer neighborhoods,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
All early childhood programs should continue to be required to have fire inspections, water tests, and CPR and first aid training. We need comprehensive background checks that include fingerprinting for our early childhood educators, just as we require of our K-12 teachers. The preparation and qualifications of educators, the smaller staff-to-child ratios, and the overall capacity limits are important for the safety and health of children.
In Maine, we can choose to honor the importance of our rules and regulations for the children who spend any part of their day in our early childhood programs. We can provide places where they receive attentive care and education to support their development. And we can strive for more, by working on our quality rating and improvement system.
Two out of three Maine children under age 6 live in families with all available parents in the workforce, and they are likely in need of child care. Working families deserve to have their children in nurturing and engaging environments.
We are very aware of the shortage of child care options around the state. We do not believe stripping away safety requirements is the right way to increase access or availability. Sensible policies contribute to our state by supporting our early childhood workforce as well as parents in all sectors of the economy who need programs they can trust with their young children.
Tara Williams is the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.
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