Both presidential candidates have talked about the importance of infrastructure to our country’s future. New investments in buildings, roads and bridges are a key foundation for our economic success. Even more important to that success is building our human infrastructure — a foundation for preparing our nation’s children for the future. As we work to build a strong foundation for our growing economy, we must also invest in a strong foundation for our children if they are to experience future success in school and in life and be able to contribute to the long-term success of our economy and our nation.
Whether children will have a strong foundation is in large part determined by the social and physical environments in which they grow up. The first five years of a child’s life are the time of greatest brain development. If young children’s basic needs are met by experiencing consistent, nurturing interactions with loving adults, they are far more likely to meet their full potential. The United States has not made the necessary investments to support young children and families after the seismic shift from stay-at-home moms and two parent families to the current reality of two-parent-working families, or often single working moms with young children today. The major advances in what we now know about early childhood brain development make these investments more urgent. Our aging early childhood infrastructure is in dire need of repair. While we wait for critically needed investments, there has been important progress.
Just last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued two sets of standards and regulations that will contribute significantly to building the sound foundation all young children need including new supports for their parents. The final Head Start Program Performance Standards, required by the bipartisan Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007, will help ensure all Head Start programs provide high quality, comprehensive services that lead to strong outcomes for children. HHS also published new rules to help states implement the bipartisan Child Care and Development Block Grant Reauthorization Act signed into law by President Obama in November 2014, which focused new positive attention on basic health and safety protections and quality care for children in federally-supported child care programs. While additional guidance was long overdue, both build on increased knowledge about the impact high-quality child care can have and are part of the infrastructure needed to help ensure children get the solid foundation they need.
The new Head Start Performance Standards apply to both Head Start and Early Head Start, programs known for their comprehensive health, mental health, and nutrition services and parent engagement. Most importantly, they recognize children don’t come in pieces and that comprehensive services are central to the programs’ mission. They provide additional support for teachers to ensure they have the training and skills they need to provide high-quality care and education. They explicitly prohibit expulsions and severely limit suspensions of children from Head Start programs, recognizing the disproportionate rate at which children of color are suspended from preschool programs. They set a goal for all programs to serve children for a full school day and full school year by 2020. Currently only a third of Head Start preschool programs provide full-day, full school year services. The new performance standards also make it easier for programs to actively recruit and serve homeless children and children in foster care.
The final regulations for the Child Care and Development Fund take steps to ensure critical protections and quality care for children. Requiring annual monitoring of licensed and license-exempt providers and that all child care staff complete a comprehensive background check are important new health and safety measures. States must now guarantee 12 months of continuous eligibility for child care assistance, easing the burden on parents with fluctuating incomes and providing greater continuity of care for children. Additional funding set aside for quality improvements and stronger requirements about the level at which states set provider reimbursement rates should strengthen the quality of care available for families with children. That the unique needs of homeless children and children in foster care are given special consideration is a cause for applause.
These new federal requirements give state and local leaders, families, and other child advocates a unique opportunity to help put in place the sound infrastructure needed to strengthen the foundation for our young children. The next step is to get involved in your own communities to make sure these improvements become a reality. If you are a parent or grandparent of a child who will directly benefit, or committed to improving your community by ensuring every child has a quality early childhood experience, learn more about the specific Head Start and child care requirements and check with the Children’s Defense Fund to see how you can become engaged (1-800-CDF-1200).
Ensuring these important protections and quality improvements are put in place is a significant but not sufficient step to giving every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start and a safe start in life. There is much we as a nation still must do.
We must support families welcoming new children into their lives by providing paid family leave and expanding voluntary, evidence-based home visiting programs. We must expand funding for Early Head Start to ensure that it lives up to its promise of providing comprehensive, quality early childhood opportunities for poor infants and toddlers. Currently the program serves fewer than five percent of eligible children. We must expand access to high-quality child care so parents can go to work secure in the knowledge that their children are in a safe, nurturing environment that will support their development. Only 23 percent of federally-eligible children under 5 have access to child care subsidies and 360,000 subsidies have been lost since 2006.
We must remember quality care is dependent on a well-trained and supported workforce. Right now child care workers are paid less than parking lot attendants in 30 states. Is this how America values the professionals who care for our children? Finally, we must ensure all 3- and 4-year-olds have access to high-quality preschool programs that lead into great public schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Providing a high-quality continuum of early childhood development and learning opportunities is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Our nation’s moral and economic future depends on us providing quality support and equal opportunities to our 14.5 million poor children. Nearly 70 percent of them are children of color, and far too many of the 4.2 million children under 5 living in poverty come to school unready to learn as do too many more living in families struggling to get by. We must all work together to change the odds for these and all our children in 2017 and beyond. Our future and our values as a nation depend on it.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.