Viewpoint: District must help its youngest residents

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Robert White is an at-large D.C. Council member. (photo courtesy of Robert White)

As we watch District students start a new school year, we wonder how many of them would be doing better in school if they had received high-quality early care and education. How many of them are struggling against deficits that were imprinted on their brains as infants and toddlers because of insufficient support for their healthy development? And what can we do now to make a difference?

Data show that the achievement gaps we see in our public school system — between white students and students of color, high- and low-income students, and students with and without disabilities — begin long before a child enters pre-kindergarten. Deficits in cognitive development for children in poverty are apparent by age 2. The brain develops at an astonishing rate in the early years — 85 percent of core brain development occurs by age 3. Access to educators who can nurture this early development is foundational to our children’s future success. But not all District families have access to high-quality programs due to high costs and too few slots.

In fact, those families know firsthand that child care is expensive, with parents across the city struggling to meet average costs of more than $1,800 a month. And supply is limited in the District. There are only enough slots at licensed facilities to serve a third of D.C.’s youngest learners, making quality programs in convenient locations very hard to find. DC Appleseed has been researching this growing need for several years, and at-large D.C. Council member Robert White has made it a key piece of his legislative agenda. Drawing on conversations with the community and DC Appleseed’s research, he introduced the Bolstering Early Growth Investment Act (dubbed the “BEGIn Act”) this summer to tackle D.C.’s toughest child care issues: access, educator pay and equity.

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In spite of their indispensable role in shaping long-term cognitive development, early childhood educators are undervalued, earning on average just $26,000 a year. Inadequate compensation for their skills and credentials leads to high turnover and difficulty attracting new talent to the field. Research shows that children from low-income families are more likely to feel the impacts of the field’s instability. We must change the paradigm from treating early care and education workers as “babysitters,” to treating them as the essential — and professional — educators they are.

A central piece of the proposed legislation is to increase reimbursement rates in the District’s child care subsidy program. This program, which pays for low-income families to access early care and education, underpays providers who supply the care. Research conducted by DC Appleseed and DC Fiscal Policy Institute shows that current reimbursement rates cover only two-thirds of the cost of caring for an infant or toddler in a high-quality facility. To keep doors open, programs charge tuition rates as high as families can manage, and cut expenses as much as they can. Commonly, this includes paying teachers less than their worth. The proposed legislation remedies this by reformulating the reimbursement rate to include the cost of paying competitive salaries. This ensures high-quality environments for the most vulnerable children in the District.

Moreover, to better assist child care center owners and to reduce overhead costs, the bill expands a shared administrative services program for providers, creates a one-stop center to help providers open new programs, and provides incentives for building owners to lease space to early care and education facilities. These measures aim to increase supply to meet the demands of District families.

This is not about throwing money at a problem; it is about investing. A recent study from the University of Chicago found that public investments in early childhood education in North Carolina returned $7.30 for every dollar spent. The children had higher earnings in life, fewer arrests and overall lower blood pressure well into their 30s. These benefits were also multigenerational — mothers in the study reported higher earnings after their children entered preschool. Obviously, a program that has a 7 to 1 return and significantly improves the lives of children and their families is worth considering for D.C.

Even though the District leads the country with our universal pre-K program, too many of our kids enter preschool already behind. To close this academic gap, we must take responsibility as a community for our littlest residents and most vulnerable families. We can help correct inequity if we mitigate it early. This kind of investment is sound financial policy. But, more importantly, all children deserve it.

Robert White is an at-large member of the D.C. Council, and Walter Smith is executive director of the DC Appleseed Center.