We often hear how “precious” a child is, what a “treasure” she is, and how our kids are “our greatest resource.” Neuroscientists tell us that ages 0-3 are the most critical years for cognitive, social and moral development. Economists and business leaders tell us that early childhood education offers one of the best lifetime returns on investment and guarantors of a prosperous economy.
Nonetheless, the United States ranks behind about 30 other rich nationsin providing quality, affordable child care, and California is well behind states like Oklahoma and Florida. As Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education, told the Atlantic: “I think we value our children less than other nations do. I don’t have an easier or softer or kinder way to say that.”
Three of the nation’s most pressing needs meet when it comes to caring for and educating young children, although they are often treated as separate issues:
•Nearly halfof America’s 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t in preschool, and most young children from 0 to 5 years do not have quality child care or pre-kindergarten, compromising their academic and social development and later-in-life productivity as workers.
•Millions of parents cannot afford child care or preschool, forcing them — mostly mothers — either into the stressful “balancing” of work and young children, or to leave the workforce entirely.
•The 2 million child-care and preschool workersare paid abysmally (in California, on average, the annual income of child-care workers is $27,170), have little prestige, and often lack credentials certifying their competence.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in next year’s gubernatorial campaign, has called for expanding public preschool, but he and other candidates need to go much further in addressing the needs of the state’s 2.5 million 0-to-5-year-olds, their parents, and the workers who care for and teach them. We need thoughtful, courageous leaders at the state and national levels to make the case that we need all three: high-quality early education and care, affordability for parents (and more family-friendly policies, generally), and decently paid, well-trained and credentialed, and respected workers.
And we need to come up with the money — both for the kids or those who teach and care for them.
Just 47 percentof California’s 3- and 4-year-olds were in preschool programs in 2016, although there were considerable variations in quality and duration (half-day versus full-day), with only the well-to-do able to pay the $13,000 a year for the average private preschool in San Francisco or Marin counties. A very small proportion is eligible for subsidies under the First Five California program and just more than 100,000 are in Head Start or Early Head Start. By comparison, virtually all 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in free preschool in France, a program that dates to the 19th century, and about three-fourths of 4-year-olds are in state-funded prekindergarten in Oklahoma.
Yes, it would be expensive.
Costs of center-based child care and preschool, which vary widely, average about $10,000 per child. This is in line with a recent study by the Brookings Institution and Duke University that estimated that it would cost about $154 billionmore than the $37 billion that federal and state governments currently spend to make care and education available to all 0-to-4-year-olds. It also found that a more modest goal — of enrolling 70 percent of all 4-year-olds — would cost the nation about $8.8 billion per year. To put this in perspective, this is about what the federal, state, and local governments spend in about half a day, or about one-ninth the amount of cumulative taxes that Apple allegedly has evaded by legally parking much of its profits overseas.
Even ballpark-cost estimates of extending early childhood care and education generally avoid dealing with the noisome reality that quality child-care and preschool requires good programs, teachers and care providers. However, we can’t expect to attract talented workers if we continue to pay near-poverty wages and don’t ensure that all teachers and care workers are well trained. Although the Child Development Associate credential and competency standards are widely recognized and seen as a stepping-stone to career advancement, high-caliber professional development and certification need to be in place for all early-childhood workers.
With median hourly wages in 2016 for preschool teachers of $13.84 and $10.18 for child-care workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half of these workers rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and other government benefits to survive. The low status of workers often called “babysitters” makes matters worse, even though the value of their work to children, parents, and society is enormous. It doesn’t help that this has become an occupational ghettofor women, as about 19 out of 20 workers are female.
So, if our young children really are so “precious,” leaders in California and throughout the nation need to fund public preschool and support early childhood care either directly or through tax credits to parents (ideally “reversible,” like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which issues cash “refunds” to low-income workers who don’t owe taxes). Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., successfully pushed to increase the refundability of the current federal Child Tax Credit from $1,100 to $1,400 as part of the GOP tax bill, but — relative to need — this is a drop in the bucket. If programs are public, then pay needs to be brought in line with kindergarten teachers, who earn upward of $20,000 a year more than pre-K teachers. And we all need to respect and honor workers who play such a pivotal role in our children’s and America’s future.
Andrew L. Yarrow, a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute whose fifth book will be published next year, has written extensively on issues relating to economic security. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters.