Researcher Kathy Hirsch-Pasek has a challenge she would like to see lawmakers in the U.S. Congress take on—call it a dare. She wants all 535 of them to spend a day taking the lead in an early childhood classroom.
Just one day would be enough to show the folks in Congress how difficult and important the work is, says Hirsch-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“I know they won’t do it,” she says, laughing. “I really think if they saw firsthand the appreciation of parents, the difference they could make for families and how hard the job is, we would start to think of people in this business more like financiers and bankers.”
As summer vacation arrives, more U.S. families will be faced with a need for affordable, high-quality child care. But relief isn’t in sight just yet, even for the country’s youngest students. The promise of billions more in federal funding to subsidize preschool and bring early childhood educators’ salaries up to par has been stalled in Congress.
While funding for child care and early education have bipartisan support, much of the conversation hinges on how willing lawmakers are to loosen the purse strings on funding.
Hirsch-Pasek believes that it’s time to change how politicians and society at-large talk about funding preschool and high-quality child care. The need is immediate, she and a colleague wrote in a blog for the Brooking Institute, with economic impacts for parents now and long-term consequences for kids.
The pair fired back at a comment by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has held up the funding and last year said that lawmakers didn’t “have an urgency” to pass a $3.5-trillion budget that included an infusion of cash for universal pre-K programs, increased wages for child care professionals and child care programs for workers. Some Republican lawmakers worry about how much states would have to pay for the programs after the first three years of federal funding in the bill.
“It always boils down to funding, and I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are families a priority or aren't they?’ Just be honest about it,” Hirsch-Pasek says.
To see the way child care can make or break the economic picture for families, Hirsch-Pasek says we need only look back at the beginning of the pandemic-induced shutdown. Droves of women left the workforce to care for children. And while many returned, not all did.
“The biggest problem that we face as a nation is that we're not taking care of our greatest natural resource,” Hirsch-Pasek says of children. “I know there can be a whole lot of wonderfully intended men discussing this, but often when school’s out, this falls as a very tough burden on families, and in particular on women.”
On top of that, paltry wages—less than $11 per hour—are the reason child care workers are among those who did not return to the industry.
“We can’t even get bodies in the door right now because we pay people less than if they were a refuse collector or on a line to make sausages—and way less than if they worked at Walmart,” Hirsch-Pasek says. “When we put that together, we see that it’s an industry that needs help. It is the industry that allows families to do what families do, be in the workplace and have some sanity, so there’s kind of no place to go.”
In her writing, Hirsch-Pasek also cites research that shows high-quality child care is linked to better student performances in math and reading up to high school, higher levels of employment and education and even lower rates of incarceration. Without that child care access, kids don’t get those academic boosts, and parents can take a hit when it comes to employment opportunities.
Increased funding for child care is extremely popular across political parties, Hirsch-Pasek says. But over the past 35 years, she has watched politicians bicker over details.
While the process is stalled nationally, schools are taking action for early childhood education on their own. Chicago Public School’s website crashed due to high interest after it announced an expansion of its full-day pre-K program. Protesters demonstrated outside a Michigan university in April to demand an early childhood education center for children of students and staff.
“You need to price out the components that will work and put it on the table,” Hirsch-Pasek suggests. “We have a chance to resuscitate and to solve for families one of the biggest obstacles in their families: high quality child care. We have to not get hung up on party politics.”