Quality child care and pre-k programs are often pitched as the way to break the cycle of systemic poverty. But families across all economic levels benefit—and across all educational backgrounds, cultures, and races, too. Putting any baby or kid under five in stimulating, nurturing, and safe environments is the best way to instill a love of learning that leads to academic, economic and social success throughout life.
Just ask Todd Stephens, who recently began serving his fifth term as the state representative for Pennsylvania’s 151st legislative district, in Montgomery County.
In 2012, when his first child was born, he and his wife both wanted to resume their full-time jobs. Which inevitably led to discussions about child care. Could his parents take care of the baby? Hers? Should they look for other childcare arrangements with neighbors?
Drawing upon the strong investigative skills he had honed as a prosecutor, Stephens started to do some research into childcare for his son. That’s when he learned, as he states, “the lifelong benefits of a good early learning program.” Of course, he and his wife, like any loving parents, would want what was best for their son, so they investigated high-ranking child care programs.
Then came the kicker. “It was expensive. Even for us, with college and post-grad degrees and a two-income household.” They had to struggle through tough personal budget decision-making in order to afford quality child care. And since that was the case for them, Stephens had to wonder, “How do other families manage? How do single moms manage?”
As a four-term member on the Children & Youth Committee, the epiphany he experienced as a working parent with one, and then two young children gave him an empathy that has informed his work for other families of his district and state. He knows from personal experience the importance of early childhood education, and he recognizes that while he is in the Republican majority, this is a bipartisan issue requiring government support and investment to provide…
* Funding for training and development so teachers use best practices to inspire play and exploration in young minds.
* Safe spaces for children–even those with physical disabilities, clean supplies, a variety of toys, materials, and equipment.
*Free rides or supplemental grants so all families can afford quality programs for their children.
*Expansion and upscaling of centers of excellence to eliminate the long waiting lists and make early childhood opportunities accessible wherever the geographical need exists.
The science behind human development is common knowledge these days: Astonishing brain activity begins right at birth and accelerates at a fast clip in the first five years. The current model for child care is a long way from sticking little ones in free or low-cost babysitting with grandparents, aunts, or neighbors….no matter how educated, loving, attentive, willing, available, and conveniently located these adults may be. Infants, babies, and toddlers thrive when they receive opportunities to interact with other caring, trained adults who can consistently guide behavior, foster social and language skills, and offer experiences involving a variety of sights, sounds, smells, and touchable objects. Indeed, the evidence is rock-solid: All families gain from evidence-based, early-childhood programs that deliver professional standards of educational excellence, engage parents, and enrich communities.
But does every new parent — whether a high school dropout or a PhD — know this? After all, older generations rarely pass along this new paradigm. Media tend to focus on crises of the day, chronic ills, and squeaky wheels. It’s rare that new parents like Todd Stephens and his wife know to ask the right questions, explore all the options, and figure things out for their families. And when parents do become aware of programs, can they determine which ones are best for their children? Which ones they can get their child into? Which ones they can afford?
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it up to all of us who care about kids to raise awareness about the importance of quality early childhood education. It’s on us to share the news with new parents we know…without waiting to be asked. It’s on us who work and pay taxes to inform community and business leaders about the most critical “start-up” around. It’s on us to constantly remind policy makers—at city, state, and federal levels — what deserves top priority in their budgets. Representative Stephens gets it and is in a position of influence to push access and affordability for Pennsylvania families. But every voice is needed, to ensure the message hits home and tops personal and legislative agendas alike: Every kid should enjoy the basic human right of high-quality early childhood education.