Support the Learning and Development of Our Youngest Citizens: It Matters!

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This blog piece originally appeared on President Jackie Jenkins-Scott’s Huffington Post blog.

With news last week that Seattle is set to have the highest minimum wage in the country of $15 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25, many in the human service fields are applauding.

Inadequate compensation in early education helping professions remains one of society’s biggest challenges. We have not been able to move the needle sufficiently on the issue of low wages in the early childhood field which keeps many talented teachers from joining the ranks and/or staying in the field.

Several weeks ago, my colleagues visited a program in which early education teaching positions have been vacant over a year and a half — it is near impossible to attract qualified teachers when the pay remains as low as $10.00-$14.00 per hour. And in many places, the pay is at minimum wage which is $8.00 per hour in Massachusetts, much below Boston’s living wage of $13.76 — and this is still low considering the cost of living in the city.

The field of early childhood have much to celebrate now that the President of the United States, the Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and many other governors and legislators as well as business leaders have articulated well the importance of high-quality early education. Early childhood educators and researchers have documented that children’s brains develop at rapid speed their first three years of life especially. Nonetheless, the issues of access, affordability and quality remain a critical challenge for the early childhood field and for families.

The issue of low wages for the field is followed by the lack of affordable quality options for working parents, especially those that do not fall into the subsidy eligibility guidelines. Young working parents continue to have to patch their young children’s care: I heard about a young woman who is not eligible for subsidy — she takes her newborn to formal care two days a week, her mother watches the baby one day a week, her sister the third day. And, she begged her boss of 12 years to let her work from home one day a week. He agreed to it on a limited trial basis. Think about the impact of all of those transitions for her newborn, coupled with all the different styles of caregiving and the stress for the young parents.

This true story is happening across the Commonwealth and throughout the nation for hundreds of working parents. Though we have come a long way in the field, there is much work still to be done to ensure that children’s development and learning is at the forefront when the federal, state and local budgets are being decided. It is up to us, the adults, to be advocates in our communities and to work with our elected and appointed officials to keep children at the table within all policy conversations.

But there is good news in the field: at the federal level. The Strong Start for America’s Children bill is pending in the House and Senate; the bill would significantly expand access to high-quality preschool for 4 year olds from low to moderate income families through state-federal partnerships. The first five years of life are critical for lifelong health, learning, and social and emotional skills; however, only 32 percent of 3-to-5-year-olds who are living below the poverty line are enrolled in formal preschool. The bill would also increase access to high-quality infant and toddler care through an optional set-aside and partnerships between Early Head Start and child care.

I urge those as passionate on this issue as I am to not sit quietly. Now is the time to contact your legislators and to work with advocacy groups such as the National Women’s Law Center to be tough enough to make real change happen.

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