I always knew I wanted to work with children, but it wasn’t until I started working with at-risk teenagers in Randolph County that I knew the value of early childhood education. The hard truth was that — despite my efforts to build relationships, care for them, and provide them with a trusted adult figure — I could not give them everything they needed. I quickly learned that in order to make the biggest impact on their lives, the learning needed to begin at a much younger age.
And why wouldn’t we start early? Our children are the entirety of our future. But without access to high-quality early childhood education, far too many children, just like the ones I worked with, will fall behind.
We know the early years of a child’s life contain the most brain growth. What we give young children in the first years of life is what we will get back in return for years to come. Children will be more prepared for elementary school, more likely to graduate high school and higher education, and more likely to earn more later in life. Fulfilling children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs will increase their readiness to learn and build on a cycle of empowerment that will help them navigate their own career path and future.
Providing this early education will also dismantle barriers that have prevented disadvantaged children, especially children of color, from reaching their fullest potential. Investing in high-quality early childhood education is one of the best investments our country can make.
I’ve been at First Presbyterian Weekday Preschool Center in Greensboro now for over 20 years. Each day, I leave knowing that by the time my kids are five years old and ready to go off to kindergarten, they have been loved, nurtured, fed, cared for, supported, and exposed to the world in many ways in the fundamental first years of their life.
But not every child has that opportunity.
President Joe Biden recently unveiled the American Families Plan to invest in our kids, our families, and our economic future — because when American families do well, our nation thrives. Beyond helping American families meet the needs of today, this plan powers the innovation and growth of tomorrow through an historic expansion in access to quality education and child care. It’s a once-in-a-generation investment that would ensure children and young people are able to grow, learn, and gain the skills they need to succeed.
Biden’s American Families Plan would be an enormous step forward in changing opportunities for our children and families, particularly through its provisions to provide universal preschool and expand access to affordable child care.
Only 58,900, or 24%, of the 248,600 3- and 4-year-olds in North Carolina are enrolled in publicly-funded preschool, according to a White House fact sheet on what the proposal could mean for North Carolina. The plan would provide access to free, high-quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in North Carolina, boosting their educational outcomes and allowing more parents to go back to work. As an early educator with decades of experience, I know firsthand how life-changing those experiences could be for so many kids.
As we saw during the pandemic, child care is critical for families. In North Carolina, 44% of people lived in areas in 2018 without enough child care options to meet the need. For those that have access, the average cost is sky-high. The average two-parent household spends 10% of their income on child care every year. The lack of affordable child care also makes it more difficult for women to remain in their jobs. The American Families Plan would ensure that low and middle-income families pay no more than 7% of their income on high-quality child care. That would help 169,100 children under five years old across the state, according to the White House fact sheet.
When I first started teaching, I was appalled at the low wages offered to such an essential and important job like shaping the lives of our children. That’s why we have to make sure child care is a source of good jobs for North Carolina. Right now, the average median wage of child care workers is just $10.62. The American Families Plan would ensure that all employees in funded preschool programs are paid a $15 minimum wage.
The need is clear and Biden has proposed a solution that will help North Carolina families make ends meet and our children reach higher levels of success. Congress should pass the American Families Plan quickly and take a step towards correcting our country’s underinvestment in its educators, its people, and their futures.