Column: Make early childhood education a priority

Even in the midst of a polarized campaign season, 90 percent of voters agreed that Washington should make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable. Linda Davidson   |   Washington Post
Even in the midst of a polarized campaign season, 90 percent of voters agreed that Washington should make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable.Linda Davidson | Washington Post
Published January 20 2017

According to a recent National Public Radio poll, across regions and family types, the cost of child care is the greatest source of financial stress for families today. In Florida, as in many other states, it is less expensive to send a child to a state university than it is to pay for child care for an infant. Why? Because child care and early education is a labor-intensive industry, requiring a low student-to-teacher ratio.

For the last four years, the First Five Year's bipartisan poll shows a majority of voters want greater access to affordable, quality early childhood education. Even in the midst of a polarized campaign season, 90 percent of voters agreed on one thing: Congress and the president should work together to make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable for low- and moderate-income families.

High-quality, dependable and affordable child care for children of all ages is more important than ever, especially since having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for most families. This is especially vital to our low-income families because by the time a low-income child enters kindergarten in America, he or she is already woefully lagging the more advantaged peers — 11 months behind in math and 13 months behind in reading, according to an April 2016 report from the Center for American Progress. These gaps only widen as the years go on.

Over the past two years there has been significant bipartisan support coming out of the current administration and Congress on child care and early learning. For example, in November 2014, Congress voted to reauthorize Child Care Development Block Grants. This reauthorization incorporated feedback from local, state and national advocates, which improved child care safety, quality, access, affordability and continuity of care.

Likewise, Congress rounded out 2015 and took important bipartisan steps to address early learning priorities with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which contains several provisions supporting quality early childhood education. Additionally, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that invests nearly $1 billion in new funds for early care and learning. Both the Every Student Succeeds Act and the new funding will afford states the opportunity to take a comprehensive and effective approach to meeting the needs of our state's youngest and most important citizens.

There are few issues that enjoy bipartisan support like the issue of early learning. Voters want elected officials to do more to create a stronger Florida, a stronger America, both now and for the future. As James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who has spent decades studying the effects of early childhood education, says, "The road to college attainment, higher wages and social mobility in the United States starts at birth. The greatest barrier to college education is not high tuition or the risk of student debt; it's in the skills children have when they first enter kindergarten."

It is our hope that as the campaign lawn signs come down and our new officials take office at the local, state and federal levels, that they will continue to reach across the aisle to champion and support working families and young children by committing to building an early childhood education system that is grounded in quality, invests in training and coaching, is integrated with elementary education and incorporates the maximization of all available funding. With that formula, we ensure that our families, communities, children and early childhood educators all win.

Steve Knobl is CEO and Aakash Patel is chairman of the board of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.