Originally published by the LA Daily News.
This is not a good time to be a young child in America – especially a child from a low-income family.
This past fall alone, 57,000 children were denied a place in the federal Head Start program as a result of automatic budget cuts required by the 2011 federal deficit reduction law. Those cuts have also meant less money to help young children with developmental delays, and for maternal and child health care. In fact, spending on children fell between 2010 and 2012 both in real terms and as a share of the federal budget.
Our investments do not reflect our priorities. Despite knowing that children’s experiences during the first five years of life are more consequential than we ever imagined and widespread agreement about the need to invest in early care and education, pre-K funding has actually declined in most states in the past several years, according to a recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research. In fact, state funding for pre-K decreased by more than half a billion dollars in 2011-2012, the largest one-year drop ever when adjusted for inflation, according to the same report.
While there’s no shortage of hand-wringing over our dismal rankings in educational achievement compared with other countries, we consistently fail to invest in parenting, family supports, and early education at the levels needed to set all children on a path toward success.
Our standards are shockingly low. Child care and early education workers are relegated to the lowest rung of the career ladder, too often with no health care, unemployment insurance or other benefits. In 2011, the median annual salary for a child care worker was $19,510 – less than that of a tour guide or aerobics instructor, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Given such low wages, it’s not surprising that the training requirements for child care workers are so minimal – in three states, they’re not even required to have a high school education.
We focus too much on “fixing the kids” rather than helping the adults in their lives.
We need adults to know far more than many seem to about how important everyday home life is to how children are developing and thinking – that anger and violence and lack of stability are simply not good for kids. We need to ensure that parents and child care workers know that babies are listening to them before they can actually talk. We need to help them understand that the give and take of conversations – whether through reading, talking or singing – is literally shaping the growth and architecture of their children’s brain.
We can’t just trust and hope that our children’s caretakers know this stuff. It’s information that has to be taught. Changing behaviors is possible, as tobacco campaigns have well illustrated. Let’s invest in raising awareness about how the adults in the lives of children are the ones – the only ones – that can shape a child’s future, and then let’s invest in giving those adults the tools and training they need to do so.
As much as we say we want to “save the children,” our collective inaction speaks volumes. The real work means doing some things that do not feel so warm and fuzzy, such as helping adults find jobs and stable housing so that they have enough emotional energy to devote to their children. The real work means teaching adult caregivers, parents and teachers why they need to drench the children in their care with words, kindness and compassion. The real work means demanding more rigorous inspections and licensing for child care facilities – and better training and wages for the caregivers.
And the real work means encouraging our political leaders to invest in the early years and in the adults, before a child reaches school.
Let’s start putting our money where our mouth is.
Yolie Flores a member of the CA Fwd Leadership Council and is a former LAUSD School Board member.