Education Lab spoke with the authors of “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality,” a book that outlines a plan to boost early learning in the United States.

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Benji lives in a South Seattle neighborhood with his parents, who work at a nonprofit organization and a local school district. With a combined income of $72,000, his family isn’t poor. But when it came time for Benji’s parents to find child care for him, the cheapest option was $10,000 a year. So while they wanted to send him to a place where he could play with and learn from other kids, Benji went to his grandmother’s house.

The story of Benji is one of hundreds compiled by researchers who wrote “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality,” which outlines a strategy to fix what they say is an early-learning and child-care crisis . (The researchers used pseudonyms for all their participants, including Benji.)

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington, says she has also heard countless stories of families who can’t afford child care, which motivated her to craft a new bill that she discussed Monday at the Redmond YWCA, with two of the book’s authors at her side.

Child Care for Working Families Act

The bill, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, would:

• Ensure families that earn less than 150 percent of the state median income pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care

• Increase access to high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds by providing funding and incentives to states

• Increase compensation and training for child-care workers

Source: Office of Sen. Patty Murray

Murray’s bill would add more affordable child-care options, support universal preschool programs and increase compensation for child-care workers. She introduced it this past month, with strong support from Democrats but none yet from Republicans.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

“Too many people are paying more than they can (for child care),” Murray said Monday. “It’s a family issue, it’s a community issue, it’s a national issue.”

Education Lab spoke with Ajay Chaudry and Christina Weiland, who wrote “Cradle to Kindergarten” with Taryn Morrissey and Hirozaku Yoshikawa. It covers what they see as a lack of child care and early learning, how that affects students when they get older, and the tipping point toward universal early-learning options. The four authors are all university professors, and Chaudry, Weiland and Yoshikawa worked with the Seattle City Council when it was starting to design and plan what became the Seattle Preschool Program.

Your book mentions that the United States ranks low among other developed nations in terms of spending devoted to children under age 5. How did we get to this point?

Chaudry: Our history in the U.S. of being first when it comes to educational investments and creating opportunity for kids is really positive. We were the first country to establish free primary public education, first to expand it, and we were among the first to create a system of state public higher education. But when other countries first created (their) education (systems) … they started with including a lot of nursery school and preschool education, while for us it has been trying to add to what existed.

How does the lack of spending on child care affect students when they enter the K-12 system?

Weiland: One point we make whenever we can is just how very large these gaps are for kindergarten readiness … by income. Most of the eventual achievement gap is in place by that first day of kindergarten. The current system we have is resulting in enormous inequalities.

Chaudry: One thing that people don’t know is the gap is also large between higher-income kids and middle-income kids. The only ones who get (high-quality preschool) are those who have the resources for their kids. The gap is increasing between … the maybe 25 percent who can afford the cost, and everyone else. I don’t think that everyone realizes how much the middle class struggles with these issues just as much as lower-income, working families.

What could make people — and politicians — change their minds about increasing child-care spending?

Weiland: Parents of all income levels are investing more in their children’s learning than they ever have before. They know that things like Head Start and center-based care exist, and they know even if they are investing as much as they can, they can’t mimic a trained teacher with a group of kids. They can’t compensate for that.

Chaudry: Things reach a tipping point. When you go to work and you see that the higher-income employees all have their kids in preschool, where maybe 60 percent of kids are in preschool, there becomes a point of asking “Why isn’t the other 40 percent able to go?” So many families struggle with this.