High-quality early childhood education essential

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Working parents should not have to choose between making their mortgage payment or being able to afford quality childcare.

But that is an economic reality for many parents in our community. According to the business leaders group America’s Edge, a working family in Walla Walla with two young children will spend on average $16,000 a year to ensure their children are in a high quality early learning program – compared to a median annual mortgage cost of $15,732. 

These childcare challenges have a bottom-line impact on employers searching for and retaining the best-qualified workers. According to a 2007 study, 30 percent of Washington parents who used childcare either had to deal with the stress of finding a new provider, or had to change jobs due to issues related to childcare, or both.

Further, 15 percent of Washington families reported that someone in their family had to quit a job, not take a job, or change a job because of problems with childcare. The scope of this problem is significant because roughly 60 percent of children under age six in Walla Walla have both or their only parent in the workforce.

Insufficient access to quality pre-K and childcare also has an impact on children’s long-term academic achievement and on the quality of our future workforce.

Seven of every ten new jobs created in Washington between 2008 and 2018 will require some type of formal education beyond high school. The number of Washington jobs requiring post-secondary education is expected to grow 28 percent faster than the number of jobs for high school dropouts.

Meeting these educational requirements will be difficult when you consider these facts: In Washington, 24 percent of students do not graduate from high school on time; 60 percent of eighth graders are below grade level in math; and 66 percent of fourth graders read below grade level.

High-quality early care and education can help by getting more children on track for long-term academic success. Recent research on New Jersey’s statewide preschool program showed that children who attended for two years were significantly ahead in both math and literacy by the time they were past third grade, as compared with children who did not participate in the programs. The Chicago Child-Parent Centers, whose participants were 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school.

Studies of pre-K programs in other states, including New Mexico, Arkansas, West Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, also report benefits such as gains in literacy and lowered likelihood of being held back in school.

Washington is on the right track with new initiatives to expand and improve our Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and implement a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to provide parents with a way to know if their children are in high-quality programs. However, there is still much more to be done to ensure our children’s success and our state’s economic vitality.

We have an opportunity to provide quality pre-K to more kids in Washington through federal funds that would help support our early learning programs across the state.

I urge our congressional delegation to support a voluntary state-federal partnership that will expand access to high-quality pre-K for four-year-olds and high-quality childcare for children age birth through three, especially for children in low-and moderate-income families.

Congress and the Obama administration should work together to ensure that this crucial investment is made a priority. Access to these programs will allow those parents to go to work knowing their children are in an environment that will help them succeed, both when they enter school and later in the workforce.

High-quality early childhood education is essential for our businesses and our economy. It’s as simple as that.

Jim McCarthy, who lives in Walla Walla, is a member of America’s Edge and the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Allinace. He’s also a board member of the Foundation for Early Learning.

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