When Early Care and Education Is Funded, K-12 Benefits Too
As the fate of Build Back Better hangs in an uncertain balance, it is time for all educators — including in K-12 and higher education — to come together to support crucial investments to the early care and education system. As a whole, our education system struggles with inequitable outcomes for children, evidenced by opportunity gaps that begin in early childhood and continue to widen into high school years and beyond. Investing in early care and education will improve K-12 outcomes.
Research shows our brains develop explosively during the first three years of life, generating more than one million new neural connections a second. Well-resourced, nurturing child care and pre-kindergarten settings provide children with the opportunity to grow their curiosity, explore their surroundings, and learn crucial social-emotional skills that will help them succeed throughout their education journey. Only a robustly funded, accessible child care system can provide all children high-quality, responsive early care and education. Educators across the spectrum must insist that we invest in these initial educational experiences so that they are rich, engaging, and developmentally meaningful for all young children. This will have a systematic impact on outcomes throughout K-12 by building the foundation of learning.
Expanding access to high-quality programs is desperately needed. In 2018, only 36 percent of eligible three- to five-year-olds had access to Head Start, and only 11 percent of children under three had access to Early Head Start. Due to persistent underfunding, only 10 percent of child care is currently considered high quality. Fully funding early care and education is an investment in the foundation of children’s learning which will positively impact the full trajectory of learning.
Recruiting and retaining a stable early care and education (ECE) workforce is necessary to deliver responsive, consistent care. The ECE workforce is 40 percent people of color. Half rely on public assistance, 86 percent make less than $15 per hour, and only 15 percent receive employer-sponsored health insurance. The inequities are stark when compared to K-12 teachers, who are 80 percent White and earn an average annual salary of $65,500. The vast compensation inequities that currently exist between the ECE field and K-12 colleagues drive instability and reveal the racism of a system that continues to undervalue child care.
Compensation increases are acutely needed for a field that has a profound impact on individual lives, overall educational outcomes, and the country as a whole. Respecting and paying early childhood educators as professionals will enable our country to finally reap the full benefits of early care and education and set the stage for all education professionals to be valued and compensated fairly.
In the New Year, the education community has the opportunity to break down silos and come together to advocate for more robust supports for children in their earliest years. K-12 and higher education alike should champion what is possible throughout an individual’s lifetime of learning when all infants, toddlers, and preschoolers have access to high-quality care and education. This investment in children during their most formative years will make a profound impact on the entire system.