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Rita Furlow is a senior policy analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance.
It is time that we, as a nation, confront and commit to resolving the child care challenges hindering many families’ economic security, our children’s long-term success, and the continued prosperity of the economy. Making a substantial and sustained investment in America’s child care and early learning system by approving the funding included in the American Families Plan is a critical step in the right direction.
Decades of research in developmental science have shown that the early years are a critical time when the brain is building itself from the ground up, in much the way a house is constructed. When children have positive experiences and relationships – the building blocks of the developing brain – children get off to a good start, establishing a strong foundation for future development.
Unfortunately, in Maine and the nation, we don’t have a child care system that works to support children and families. The problem is that it isn’t a “system” at all, but a patchwork of programs varying in affordability, availability, and quality. Early childhood education is made up of a mix of public and private entities, ranging from large centers to small home-based programs. What these different models have in common is that they are financed by their customers.
Families pay “tuition” for their children to attend a child care program. Average tuition for an infant at a child care center in Maine is more than $11,000 — more than the annual cost of full-time tuition at the University of Maine. Of course, this is extremely challenging for parents during a time in their lives when they are just beginning their careers and building financial stability.
This market-based system doesn’t work when it comes to child care. Young families can’t afford the true cost of care. Child care facilities can’t charge more than parents can afford to pay, and therefore early educators are paid inadequate wages. The poor wages and benefits result in staff leaving the field for other jobs and directors of programs trying to sustain an untenable business model.
In short, how early childhood education is structured and financed doesn’t work for anyone.
Young children who need stability and strong relationships to help their developing brain are instead experiencing too many transitions as a result of staff turnover. Early childhood educators, who want to care for young children and love their jobs, must first and foremost be able to pay their own rent and living expenses. At an average wage in Maine of $29,770 a year, those wanting to work in the early care and education field can’t make ends meet. The lack of staffing results in programs with long waiting lists and leaves families with few options for care, particularly for infants and toddlers, who are the most expensive to provide care for.
Maine’s future prosperity depends on all our children having an equal opportunity for healthy growth and development. Right now, we face a significant, but solvable challenge of an inadequate and inequitable child care system. The coronavirus pandemic — like no other event — has illuminated the importance of reliable, quality early care and education, not just for individual families, but for employers and our economy. We need our federal delegation to work with their colleagues in Congress to pass legislation to ensure that all children have a strong foundation by building and investing in a new child care system that works for everyone.