Early education, child care need a better investment from public

In nearly 20 years as an early educator, I’ve developed strong connections in my community. Just last week at the grocery store I heard someone shout my name and was soon taken over with a giant hug! It was a former student who is now in high school and was organizing a food drive. The reflection of my efforts and dedication to children in my community shines back at me nearly everywhere I go in Everett.

It’s satisfying to see children grow into responsible adults while their parents go to work and establish themselves. I’ve had the added satisfaction of working with thousands of child care providers across Washington to stabilize our state’s child care system through our union.

But we’re facing a child care crisis and it’s time for an adult conversation about early learning. Too many parents are working more jobs and longer hours for low pay. They struggle to find and afford good learning opportunities for their children. They worry that their children will start school behind and not catch up. Early educators of all kinds — in centers, in family homes, in Head Starts, in public and private programs of all kinds — are themselves struggling financially.

A report released today by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment confirms what we have been experiencing: Throughout the last 25 years early learning professionals continue to be under-paid, under-valued and experience high teacher turnover — and children’s social and intellectual development suffers.

Child care workers — mostly women — still earn less than adults who take care of animals, and barely more than fast food workers. And while costs to parents for early learning education have nearly doubled since 1997, child care workers’ pay hasn’t budged. I have found a career I love, dedicated nearly two decades, and still struggle from paycheck to paycheck. How will I ever retire?

Centers directors and family providers like me do what we can to keep our valued teachers and assistants. We can be flexible with schedules, provide low-cost child care for staff’s children, and offer support. We help each other and rely on each other. But we despair when we lose that staff member who was patient and understanding and helped spark the imagination of a shy child.

Parents who can’t afford daily care try piecing together substitute care from grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors. Whether it’s a parade of relatives and neighbors or high teacher turnover, children miss out on stable relationships and learning routines that help build their growing intellectual and social skills.

Here in Washington, family child care providers have made improvements through our union, Service Employees International Union, Local 925. Before organizing our union, we suffered financial losses during every recession. Since organizing in 2006, child care providers have worked to improve assistance rates by more than 20 percent, increase quality professional development, win access to health insurance, lower parent co-payments, and make other gains for families. We have fought long and hard to keep Working Connections Child Care funding stable and advocated for quality care. We’ve prompted the state to reach out to more low-wage parents and their children.

We need changes. Big changes. Children and parents need a major investment in early learning that values both the children and the adults involved. It’s time that all parents have access to high-quality child care; for early learning teachers to earn enough to stay in their profession and provide for their own families; and for all children to have a chance to succeed.

Marie Keller has worked as a family child care provider for nearly 20 years and is the SEIU Local 925 Family Child Care Chapter president. She works in Everett.

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