The coronavirus pandemic has shattered our feelings of invincibility.
It has exposed deep divides that separate us — inequities in education, economic opportunity, criminal justice and public health. This raw and searing reality is evident in the millions of low-wage workers who have lost their jobs and the disparate impact coronavirus has had on our Black and Hispanic neighbors.
It has revealed systemic failures to prepare, to be ready, even with clear warnings such a pandemic was highly likely to occur.
We shouldn’t be surprised at systemic failures. They are all around us.
Take the threat of climate change. Our response has been piecemeal and inadequate.
Take poverty. We have designed multiple programs to eliminate poverty, spent billions, yet intergenerational poverty persists, and families wanting help must navigate a confusing labyrinth that most of us would give up on very quickly.
Take public health. The pandemic has exposed huge gaps, and we remain way behind every other industrialized country in access to health care.
Take tax policy. We have failed to modernize Washington state’s tax structure. The result is the most regressive, inadequate, and unfair system in the country, where our poorest families pay a far higher percentage — nearly 18% — of their household income in taxes than do our wealthiest families, who only pay about 3%.
But nowhere are our systemic failures more damaging and longer lasting than in the education of our children, where inequity rages on. Until we solve our well-documented education inequities, we will continue to perpetuate a society where many Americans are kept out, pushed aside, held back.
The good news is that a very good solution, a proven solution, is ours for the taking.
We know from nearly 50 years of academic research that high-quality early learning opportunities in child care and preschool for 3– and 4-year-old children can change a child’s life outcomes — better education attainment, better health, higher earning power as an adult, less criminal justice system involvement. Yet, in Washington state we only invest about 1% of our state budget in early learning and child access to preschool services, placing us near the bottom among all states.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have documented that ensuring high-quality early learning is the most important and best investment we can make for our children and our society. Last year, these same researchers documented that these investments can eliminate intergenerational poverty.
Yet, we don’t make the level of investment that’s required.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed our failures and drawn attention to who is harmed the most — low-income families and people of color. The same is true in education. We can change this reality by making sure every child has the strong and fair start they need and deserve, beginning in the all-important first five years of life.
As we prepare for recovery from this pandemic, let’s also resolve to erase education inequity and intergenerational poverty by adopting three proven solutions:
• First, a strong system of high-quality child care for infants and toddlers, so no parent is held back from working or continuing their education.
About 30% of working parents in our state report they have quit a job or school because they couldn’t find or afford child care. As an interdependent society — something the pandemic has vividly reinforced — we should subsidize quality child care and make it affordable so working families don’t pay more than 7% of their household income on child care.
Businesses need this, too, to ensure a reliable and capable workforce.
• Second, universal, yet voluntary, high-quality preschool for our 3– and 4-year-olds, free for everyone, just like our K-12 system. As the research shows, investing early in our children will reap huge benefits for all of us. Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., recognize these benefits and provide universal preschool.
We must also compensate the educators and staff providing child care and preschool commensurate with the vitally important child outcomes they are working to achieve.
• Third, strong supports for young families with children who need an extra hand, like the national Nurse Family Partnership or Seattle’s Parent-Child Home Program. These research-based family support programs improve pregnancy outcomes, improve child and parent health, and begin to expose young children to a broad vocabulary and a love of reading.
With these three solutions, we follow the evidence of what works best. The cost should be viewed as an investment in the common good.
This work is urgent. Almost one-half of Washington’s 5-year-old children enter their kindergarten classroom already behind on six age-specific measures of preparedness to learn — social-emotional, physical, cognitive, language, literacy and mathematics. For children of color, it is closer to 60% who start behind.
Children who start behind very often remain behind, and we see the results later in high school dropout rates, criminal justice involvement and the inability to remain employed as adults.
Many of these outcomes can be traced to a child’s first five years, when 90% of brain development occurs.
These efforts will require a significant investment of public dollars, but the cost of the status quo is far greater. We could raise the necessary dollars — about $1 billion per year — by adopting a new progressive, dedicated tax that would help turn our upside-down tax structure right side up. One option is a capital-gains tax, as 41 other states have, on profits from the sale of corporate stocks, bonds and other financial assets. There may well be other revenue options to consider.
What we do today for our children isn’t working. As we prepare to rebuild from this pandemic, let’s seize the opportunity to build a strong, fully integrated and effective early-learning system so Washington becomes the best place in America to raise a family, to prepare our future work force and to erase the systemic failures that have created a scourge of inequity.