After a long summer of makeshift childcare, my kids just went back to school, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the public investment in my kids’ education: their amazing teachers, the buses that get them there and back, and the after-school childcare program conveniently located at their school. As a full-time working mom, this means I can go to work knowing that my kids are being educated and cared for all day. But why do we believe all children are entitled to a publicly provided, cognitively stimulating daytime environment the day they turn five years-old, but not one minute sooner? Learning doesn’t start at age five. Public education shouldn’t either.
During my five sessions in Washington’s House of Representatives, most of my Republican colleagues—and even many Democratic ones—felt comfortable arguing that our state “couldn’t afford” to provide all families with publicly funded daycare. But almost no one suggested that keeping taxes low was more important than providing all of our state’s children with a K-12 education. The broad consensus, even in a politically divided legislature, was that teaching kids literacy and social skills should be the state’s responsibility. But why wait until age five? The very best early learning research suggests that kids start learning from the moment they’re born, and that most of the groundwork for their success in school has already been laid by the time they show up for their first day of kindergarten.
Studies have shown that children who attend Head Start or other pre-kindergarten programs are less likely to be arrested or abuse substances later in life, and are more likely to attend and complete college. For every dollar the government spends on high-quality preschool programs it saves at least $7 in future spending on social services, remedial education, public safety and juvenile justice.
Despite these big dividends, America has chosen to invest far less in pre-k and daycare than other wealthy nations. In fact, 60 percent of U.S. children now live in child care deserts—that is, localities where no licensed daycare providers exist. Meanwhile, working families that do live near high-quality child-care facilities often can’t afford to use them. The cost of full-time, quality daycare in Washington state ranges from $10,560 to $16,200 per infant per year.
The burden of compensating for this dearth of affordable child-care falls overwhelmingly on mothers. More than one-third of all unemployed women in the U.S. abandoned their jobs because of caregiving responsibilities; as a result, such women lose, on average, $324,044 in lifetime wages and benefits, while our economy loses billions of dollars annually in productive capacity. No single policy proposal would do more to close the gender pay gap than free, universally available child care.
The government shouldn’t wait until the arbitrarily chosen age of five to start investing in children’s cognitive development, simply because that’s how it’s always been. Child care is a vital form of education—and free, universal, publicly-funded child care should be available to our nation’s youngest learners. Such a policy could require every school district in the U.S. to co-locate a child care facility for kids aged zero through five on school campuses, or right nearby, and to staff those facilities with child care professionals, earning wages on par with those of K-12 teachers.
This approach would all but eliminate child-care deserts, as the vast majority of American families live a reasonable distance from at least one public school. Child care and early learning would be available in virtually every neighborhood, regardless of its income or racial composition. Families would know that their kids had reliable places to go, all day every day—and, in many cases, they would enjoy the ease of dropping their one-year-old off at the same location as their school-age children.
Some proponents of our current piecemeal early learning system argue that privatized daycare offers a diversity of providers and flexibility to families. Free, universal, publicly-funded education for those first five years could build on the early learning community’s strengths of diversity and flexibility, and vastly improve its weaknesses—poorly compensated employees, a lack of facilities, and tremendous expense to families. An additional critique is that there are deep racial inequities built into our public school system. A truly equitable “first five years” policy would need to grapple with that reality head on, by addressing unequal funding, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the deep economic disparities that often track with neighborhood and race.
It’s true that establishing free, universal, publicly-funded education for the first five years of childrens’ lives will come at a significant cost. But the long-term costs of failing millions of our children and their families year after year are much, much higher. We can take a significant step towards economic security for all families in our country if we stop leaving out the first five years in American public education.
Jessyn Farrell is a former Washington state representative and senior vice president of Civic Ventures.