DC students are back in the classroom for a new school year, but as early childhood professionals will tell you, education begins long before students enter school. Birth to 3 are critical years of social, emotional and cognitive development that ready children for school and beyond. A decade ago, our city made the smart decision to fund universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds. Now we’re building on that success with the recent passage of groundbreaking legislation by the DC Council to invest in comprehensive supports for infants and toddlers, their families and the adults who care for them.
District families need child care that’s affordable for working parents and that provides an excellent education to our youngest learners. There currently aren’t enough high-quality early education slots for the children who need them. But running a child development center is financially precarious, because the costs are so high. Young children need a lot of individualized attention and thus classes with small student-teacher ratios. Operators often struggle to covers these costs and stay out of debt, never mind pay teachers what they deserve.
Despite doing some of the most important work for the District, early educators, the majority of whom are women of color, are very poorly paid. On average, they earn only $29,000 a year—far less than their peers in public schools. At the same time, too many DC families, especially families with low and middle-incomes, are paying as much or more than they can afford for early education.
The District’s child care subsidy program reimburses early childhood professionals for the education of low-income children, but those reimbursements are far lower than the true cost of care—especially for high-quality care and education. Early childhood professionals are effectively taking a loss on each child they educate in the subsidy program. The solution? Real and sustained government investment.
The recently passed “Birth to Three for All DC” legislation works to address the low reimbursements and low pay in early childhood education. It enhances mental health and other supports for families with infants and toddlers. Under the new law, DC will identify the true cost of providing high-quality early education for infants and toddlers in the subsidy program and ensure the District’s reimbursements rise over the next few years to fully cover those costs. That includes setting salaries for early childhood educators on par with kindergarten teachers, thereby improving job quality and reducing race and gender wage disparities.
The legislation also expands eligibility for the subsidy program, making early care and education affordable for thousands more families. In the subsidy program, the costs of care are covered through a combination of government subsidies and parent co-payments. Under the legislation, parent co-payments progressively increase as household income rises, but also sets a cap so that no family spends more than 10 percent of their income on child care.
The “Birth to Three” legislation invests in expansions of numerous programs that support the health and well-being of families with young children. These mental health, physical health and nutritional health supports are as important to early learning for infants and toddlers as classroom instruction. But programs that improve health outcomes and connect families to services currently do not operate at a scale to meet the need. Deaths from pregnancy-related causes are distressingly high for Black mothers and babies in the District. Too many families also lack the resources to identify and address developmental delays or behavioral issues in young children.
Once “Birth to Three for All DC” is fully funded and implemented, all child development centers will have on-site mental health consultation to help build the capacity of teachers and families to help children who display challenging behaviors. Child development experts will help pediatricians connect families in Wards 7 and 8 to wrap-around services during visits to the doctor’s office. The new law also invests more in phone-based care coordination to connect families to services, establishes a lactation consultant certification program at local universities and strengthens local investments in home visiting services.
The DC Council secured partial funding for the legislation in the city’s 2019 budget, committing $1.3 million to seed key components. Fully implementing these important reforms will take years of advocacy and significant revenue over the next decade. It’s worth the expense. These investments will not only benefit our youngest learners, their families and the adults who care for them — they will also strengthen our entire city.
Marlana Wallace is a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org). DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia and increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.