U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and some presidential candidates are urging adoption of national early learning-focused child care and preschool for the benefit of children, parents and our economy. The Washington Legislature also is considering continued expansion of our state’s preschool program, funding for child care, and an assessment of child-care costs and accessibility.
There is a very compelling reason these proposals should be favorably considered — the survival of democracy itself.
Strengthening and preserving democracy may indeed rest on how well we prepare our youngest children for a life of engaged, active citizenship and prosperity. Which is why Washington, and the entire country, should adopt crucial, cradle-to-kindergarten strategies that provide every child with a strong and fair start in life.
Education scholar Jonathan Cohen at Columbia University identifies essential democracy-building skills as the “ability to listen to ourselves and others; ability to be critical and reflective; ability to be flexible problem-solvers and decision makers, including the ability to resolve conflict in creative, nonviolent ways; ability to participate in discussions and argue thoughtfully; and, ability to compromise and work together toward a common goal.”
Effective child-care providers and teachers know these very skills can be successfully taught in a high-quality early learning environment where enhancing social-emotional well-being and skills is paramount.
Researchers at the University of Washington have established that the basic architecture of the brain is almost fully developed by age 5, and early experiences are crucial for establishing a stable foundation for future learning. This key child development finding highlights the importance of very early adult-child relationships and communication, exposure to a broad vocabulary, strong social-emotional development, and acquisition of executive-function skills such as the ability to play well with others, follow directions, focus on a task and plan activities. In fact, research indicates that if these skills aren’t learned and practiced in these early years, they will be more difficult to acquire later in life.
So, let’s follow the science of child brain development, and the decades of research we now have that clearly establishes the efficacy of high-quality early learning efforts.
First, we should offer evidence-based, targeted, voluntary home visitation programs, including health screenings, like the Nurse Family Partnership for new parents during and after pregnancy until their child reaches age two and the Parent-Child Home Program, a literacy effort for 2- and 3-year-old children.
Second, high-quality child care for infants and toddlers is essential for parents facing today’s extremely high costs and low availability of quality child-care services. We see the crushing burden these costs have on families in Seattle where the annual median price of child care is about $17,000 per child. Done right, the cost of public subsidies for child care can be recovered fully in the increased economic contribution made by working parents. In fact, a recent study in Washington, D.C., documented a 10 percentage point increase in mothers returning to work because of that city’s early learning child-care program.
Third, high-quality, universal preschool should be provided for all 3- and 4-year-old children. Kids who attend a quality preschool where the focus is on play-based social-emotional skill development show up at kindergarten ready to learn, and the benefits last a lifetime. Seattle started on the path to universal preschool in 2014 with an emphasis on classroom quality and workforce development. Lead classroom teachers with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education are paid on par with K-12 teachers; and tuition support is provided to other teachers who are working toward their degree. As recently reported, Seattle now has the only municipal-government sponsored preschool in the country that meets all 10 national standards for quality.
This type of integrated, comprehensive approach to the important birth-to-5 years will produce tangible results, including better pregnancy outcomes, better education attainment for children, higher earning power when these kids enter the adult workforce, better health and lower involvement with the criminal justice system. This investment will be good for our children, our future workforce and our future leaders.
Let’s equip our children with essential democracy-building skills early in life. Doing so will benefit us all, and it will help strengthen our democracy.