Both presidential candidates have talked about the importance of infrastructure to our country’s future. New investments in buildings, roads and bridges are a key foundation for our economic success. Even more important to that success is building our human infrastructure — a foundation for preparing our nation’s children for the future. As we work to build a strong foundation for our growing economy, we must also invest in a strong foundation for our children if they are to experience future success in school and in life and be able to contribute to the long-term success of our economy and our nation.
Whether children will have a strong foundation is in large part determined by the social and physical environments in which they grow up. The first five years of a child’s life are the time of greatest brain development. If young children’s basic needs are met by experiencing consistent, nurturing interactions with loving adults, they are far more likely to meet their full potential. The United States has not made the necessary investments to support young children and families after the seismic shift from stay-at-home moms and two parent families to the current reality of two-parent-working families, or often single working moms with young children today. The major advances in what we now know about early childhood brain development make these investments more urgent. Our aging early childhood infrastructure is in dire need of repair. While we wait for critically needed investments, there has been important progress.
Just last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued two sets of standards and regulations that will contribute significantly to building the sound foundation all young children need including new supports for their parents. The final Head Start Program Performance Standards, required by the bipartisan Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007, will help ensure all Head Start programs provide high quality, comprehensive services that lead to strong outcomes for children.
HHS also published new rules to help states implement the bipartisan Child Care and Development Block Grant Reauthorization Act signed into law by President Obama in November 2014, which focused new positive attention on basic health and safety protections and quality care for children in federally-supported child care programs. While additional guidance was long overdue, both build on increased knowledge about the impact high-quality child care can have and are part of the infrastructure needed to help ensure children get the solid foundation they need.
The new Head Start Performance Standards apply to both Head Start and Early Head Start, programs known for their comprehensive health, mental health, and nutrition services and parent engagement. Most importantly, they recognize children don’t come in pieces and that comprehensive services are central to the programs’ mission. They provide additional support for teachers to ensure they have the training and skills they need to provide high-quality care and education. They explicitly prohibit expulsions and severely limit suspensions of children from Head Start programs, recognizing the disproportionate rate at which children of color are suspended from preschool programs. They set a goal for all programs to serve children for a full school day and full school year by 2020. Currently only a third of Head Start preschool programs provide full-day, full school year services. The new performance standards also make it easier for programs to actively recruit and serve homeless children and children in foster care.
We must remember quality care is dependent on a well-trained and supported workforce. Right now child care workers are paid less than parking lot attendants in 30 states. Is this how America values the professionals who care for our children? Finally, we must ensure all 3- and 4-year-olds have access to high-quality preschool programs that lead into great public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Providing a high-quality continuum of early childhood development and learning opportunities is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Our nation’s moral and economic future depends on us providing quality support and equal opportunities to our 14.5 million poor children. Nearly 70 percent of them are children of color, and far too many of the 4.2 million children under 5 living in poverty come to school unready to learn as do too many more living in families struggling to get by. We must all work together to change the odds for these and all our children in 2017 and beyond. Our future and our values as a nation depend on it.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.