From birth to 3 years old, a child’s brain forms more than one million new neural connections every second. That’s the most explosive time of a person’s growth. The foundations for language development are laid. Skills that enable us to plan, focus, remember instructions and juggle tasks begin to develop.
So, why should this matter to the business community?
Two reasons: One, these little people of today are the work force of 2040, and what happens in those early years affects all the years to come. And two, their parents are in the workforce today, and Clark County is facing a childcare crisis.
“Families cannot afford to pay higher rates for childcare, yet childcare businesses are struggling to make ends meet due to minimum wage increases and other rising costs,” said Jodi Wall, executive director of early care and education at ESD 112. “As a community we need to come together to solve this issue for our kids.”
The issue is statewide. Ross Hunter, secretary of the new Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families due to merge in July, has heard this from parents all over Washington.
“I couldn’t afford to work and I couldn’t afford not to work. You can get a job, but you can’t if you can’t afford it,” he told the audience at an institute focused on early childhood learning, convened last month by the Association of Washington Business.
And what business wouldn’t want to make an investment that promises a 16 percent return? According to economists such as Nobel Laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago, that’s the return society gets on every dollar invested in early childhood. Those returns come in the form of better-equipped learners and more successful public schools, improved personal and public health, fewer social services, decreased crime and incarceration rates, increased tax revenue and more educated, skilled workers.
A meta-analysis by the Harvard School of Education, “Early Childhood Education Matters,” shows that when a child repeats a grade it costs $15,000. Special education is nearly twice as expensive as regular K-12. Investing in early childhood has been shown to significantly reduce the number of kids who repeat or need special education services.
“It’s cheap, it’s really important, and there’s a moral imperative to do it,” Hunter said.
As important as birth-to-kindergarten learning is, the only bachelor’s degree that promises a lower wage than early childhood is theater, according to Rhain Evans Alvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Yet the cost of quality childcare is prohibitive.
“It’s more expensive to send a child to childcare than to a public university,” Alvin said.
Center-based infant care in Southwest Washington averages $11,184 per year; WSU Vancouver resident tuition is $9,884 per year.
The minimum wage increase in Washington has tipped many families just over the line making them ineligible for a childcare subsidy, yet they don’t make enough to afford the cost of care. And while childcare workers’ educational standards, which indicate quality, have increased, the median hourly wage for a childcare worker is only $11.99 an hour, just more than half of the regional median wage of $21.37.
Two-thirds of children under 5 now live in homes where both parents work, compared with fewer than one in 10 in 1940, notes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Women are nearly half of the workforce and 40 percent of primary breadwinners. Going back to the 1940s is not an option, either for families or for our economy.
The science of early learning is making business leaders and lawmakers take note.
“If we were to design our education system from scratch today, based on science, we’d start with birth to 5,” said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, at the AWB forum. “This coming year should be the year of early learning. Now it’s time to invest in the programs that will give us the biggest payback.”
He pointed out that the Legislature’s independent cost-benefit research arm found that for every child who goes to ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program), Washington’s pre-kindergarten program, even for one year, the savings are $34,000.
An orchardist in Yakima invested in a full-day ECEAP center when he realized the choices his workers had to make between working and caring for their children. Schweitzer Engineering Labs in Pullman, Wash., set up a Family Center onsite, with childcare, fitness and health care. It’s become a major recruiting tool and the company finds the return is worth the cost.
One note: The distinction between “care” and “education” is false. Every experience in those early years is education.
It’s time for businesses, lawmakers, educators, childcare workers and parents to come together to find solutions to the challenge of affordable, quality childcare. Today’s workforce – and tomorrow’s – depend on it.
Mary Sisson owns Kazoodles toy store in Vancouver and serves on the board of SELF (Support for Early Learning and Families).