Clare Higgins: Investing in right start for America’s children

Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — We have a free public school system in our country that assures every child a seat. It doesn’t matter that the child just moved into the community, or has a special need, doesn’t speak English, or even that their parents don’t work.

They don’t have to live with their parents, they can be in foster care or live with a relative. We all know that the system is imperfect, needing both investment and reform, but the fundamental principle that children are entitled to a free education from kindergarten through high school continues to hold true.

And we have an early education system for children from birth up to 5 years old, although “system” may be too strong a word for the patchwork of options available to parents of young children.

With the exception of Head Start, none of the options are free. And Head Start, a program begun in 1965 as a part of the War on Poverty, only reaches about 42 percent of eligible children whose family income must be under 100 percent of poverty ($15,730 for a single parent with one child).

There are some on the right who like to attack early education programs as ineffective, but they have notable proponents. James Heckman, an economist and Nobel laureate, commented that research on high-quality early education programs “demonstrate substantial positive effects of early environmental enrichment on a range of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, school achievement, job performance and social behaviors — effects that persist long after the interventions have ended.”

MassBudget, a non-partisan budget analysis organization, estimates that, out of the 158,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Massachusetts, “one-third ... roughly 52,000 children, receive public support to help fund their early education and care. The remaining two-thirds, approximately 105,500, are either not in a formal setting or are paying full price to access one.” And unless the family can afford to pay the full cost of care ($11.669 per year for a preschool child), they will need that public support. In order to get that assistance, the parent must be working or in training. A single parent with one child can’t access care if they make more than $34,994 a year — or 40 hours a week at $16.82 per hour. The wait list has had as many as 40,000 names on it.

Parents want high quality early education and care for their young children. They want caregivers who have early education credentials. They want centers and family childcare homes that are safe and inviting, with environments that help children develop the self-regulation skills needed to be successful in school and in their lives.

Parents understand that the ability to work cooperatively with others, to ask for help, to delay gratification, to focus attention, to transition between tasks and to plan for the future are the critical building blocks for school success.

Instead, many parents cobble together care for their children, depending on relatives and other informal arrangements. Some children attend Head Start or another part-day program with informal care for the balance of the day. Others pay unaffordably high fees to keep their child in a program. A lucky few either have been able to get public support or they can afford to pay for the hours that they need in the program that they want. Of course, if the parent loses a job, the child loses early education.

Let’s talk about quality. Safe and inviting settings are important, but children learn and grow through their relationships with stable, nurturing adults. Teaching staff turnover is often 30 percent per year.

That means that children have a one in three chance of losing a beloved teacher every year. High teacher turnover has profound results for children. They are prevented from forming secure attachments with trusted adults that are necessary for learning. Social, emotional and language development can be affected.

And it is much more difficult for parents to develop a relationship with the person caring for their child. Why is the turnover rate so high? Because early educators on average earn less than $25,500 per year.

This is what passes for an education and care system for our youngest children.

As we move into a discussion of universal early education for young children, let’s be careful not to assume that the public school model is the way to go. Half-day school year preschool programs won’t provide working parents the stable care they and their children need to thrive. We need to pressure politicians and policymakers to propose solutions that are informed by the developmental needs that young children have for continuity, stability and attachment.

And any solution must include increased funding so that those who care for young children can afford to stay in the field.

Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.