Why we need to jump-start Pa.’s ‘stalled’ investment in early childhood care and education | Opinion

By Kathleen McHale

In a recent column, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Fernandez explained how the rising costs of Penn State and Pennsylvania’s other public colleges have contributed to a steep decline in enrollment, a decrease in college bound PA enrollees and why the Commonwealth is one of the nation’s leaders in student debt.

Tuition debt becomes one of the leading factors in career choices pushing students towards pursuing higher paying careers in engineering, science and math and away from traditionally lower paying jobs in human services and early childhood education.

The viability of careers in human services, social work and early childhood education are jeopardized in Pennsylvania.

There are more than 870,000 children under the age of six in Pennsylvania, and approximately 70 percent of their mothers’ work outside the home.

Who cares for them and how has a profound impact on each child’s and society’s future. Yet it remains as one of the most neglected aspects of public policy and investment in Pennsylvania.

More than two decades of research has clearly concluded that experiences in the first five years of life shape us in profound ways. Consistent, stable caregiving interactions with loving, supportive adults is what builds healthy brains.

By they time they’re 5 years old, a child’s brain is 90 percent of an adult brain. There is no way to make up for lost time if we fail to do the right thing in educating and caring for young children. With every dollar invested in early childhood saving $13 to $17 in future costs, it is an investment that can’t be argued.

This reality, however, remains one of the most neglected aspects of public policy and taxpayer investment in Pennsylvania.

The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, noted Pennsylvania’s policies and investment in early childhood care and education has “stalled”.

Standards for care and qualifications for staff have increased while payment rates have been virtually stagnant for years. Every day in Pennsylvania, quality early care and education is underfunded. The result is an insufficient number of high quality programs and a workforce severely underpaid for its qualifications and responsibilities.

Even with important initiatives such as the state’s PreK Counts and PHL PreK, at $8,750 per child, the rates paid to providers are less than half of what is needed to pay the state-required certified teachers a market wage and to pay teacher assistants a living wage.

The result is a profession that is not viable with excessive turnover and vacancies that threatens the well-being of young children, their families and the providers of these services.

Estimates are that paying early childhood professionals adequately would cost close to $25,000 per child per year.

A plan to begin to move in that direction would generate hope for the early childhood community to continue its important work. The current gap with no strategic plan is unsustainable if we value the well-being of Pennsylvania’s future – its children.

From Philadelphia to Harrisburg, everyone cares about this issue. That includes Gov. Tom Wolf, Mayor Jim Kenney, legislators, business leaders, the military, families, educators, universities, the community.

Yet, there is still no comprehensive plan to address the growing problem. It is leading to a silent crisis.

Many groups and associations that care about children and families are taking on this issue in Pennsylvania, advocating for increased investment in high quality care for preschool children.

The complexities of governmental payment for various types of early care and education make understanding and discussing the subject confusing for many, and providers of these services are too busy taking care of young children and making ends meet to have the time to speak up often. Without the threat of services going away, the crisis is not recognized.

Imagine what Pennsylvania could be if every child got the right start as a little one. Pennsylvania’s young children and their families deserve better.

Kathleen McHale is the president and CEO of SPIN Inc., a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides services to children and adults with intellectual and autism spectrum disabilities.