Okay, back to education, this time early childhood (ECE) and child care. Once again, this falls into the bucket of “let’s not go back to business as usual.”
So here in PA, at first we had a confusing mix of programs in some counties permitted to remain open, but programs in counties with high COVID-19 numbers being forced to close. Except for those centers that serve essential workers. I kept wondering if that left Miss Mary, the day care director, to choose which businesses were essential and only allow those families to attend, or if they were making decisions based on the ever changing list of essential services (gun shops, no…oh yes… dry cleaners?)
Now evidently all centers and programs are closed, but an operator can ask for a waiver. Really?
The thing is, child care/ ECE is AWAYS a confusing mess for parents and operators. Here in Philly, a family might be served by Early Head Start, Head Start, subsidized child care, Pre-K Counts (state program), PHLPreK (Philly program), some combination of these that gets the family the hours they need for the least amount of money, or they can pay privately which even solidly middle class earners can’t afford.
In some school districts programs operate in schools, in some they don’t, and in some there are programs both in schools and in the community. Teachers pay can vary wildly between the “community wage” and the union wage if the program is run by a school district. The most highly qualified teachers will leave community programs and move to the school district, where they can make many thousands more.
On top of all that, the requirements vary so centers that are trying to stay alive by accessing a variety of these funding streams have to meet different requirements, meet with different monitors, fill out different reports, track different things, for each one. And back to the quality—in most cases it isn’t great. The financial margin is so slim that most centers staff on the margins too, employing only the number of highly qualified staff they absolutely have to.
So let’s use this pause to think about something different. Some candidates, notably Elizabeth Warren, were out there discussing this before the pandemic. What do we all want? The first priority is high quality care for children 0-5, which is the developmental stage when humans experience the most robust brain development. If we had paid parental leave for twelve months, we would partially eliminate one issue; the very high cost and very uneven quality of infant care. We might supplement that for some families with a visiting educator, as is done in Early Head Start.
We want child care/ECE to be affordable for families, and we want the front line staff to earn a living wage. We want financial and administrative efficiency, which is impossible under the current system. So we need to design a system for toddlers and preschoolers that is mostly free, and shifts to an affordable family “co-pay” at a certain income level. How do we get there? Elizabeth Warren suggested a “wealth tax” but we could start by rolling back the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations (not small businesses) and direct some portion of that money to this. And then we have to honestly confront the increasing income inequality in our country and admit that the quality of life for most citizens is diminishing as the divide grows. And child care is one big indicator of this.
Of course this is a very simplistic outline to a very complex issue, but let’s state emphatically that we know this can be fixed, because countries not as wealthy as the US do it right now.