Preschool is making headlines lately as proposals to expand access to early childhood education have been released by both President Joe Biden and Gov. Jared Polis.
The president’s plan, released last month, would guarantee universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds while expanding tax credits to help parents of young children to pay for child care.
Although less ambitious, the governor’s plan — House Bill 1304, titled “Early Childhood System,” would guarantee access to at least 10 hours of pre-kindergarten for Colorado’s 4-year-olds, while also creating a state office to coordinate the state’s early childhood services and education programs.
Together, these proposals outline a path for the U.S. and Colorado to join most other wealthy countries, where universal, affordable — or free — early childhood education programs are standard. This is an opportunity for us to make investments in children and their parents that will benefit for our economy for years to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences for women. In the last year, 80% of those who have left the workforce were women.
This is in part because of increased child care needs as child care centers and schools have closed or switched to remote programming. It’s also a result of the loss of jobs in the hospitality, retail, and service sectors where a majority of workers are women. More than 2 million women have dropped out of the workforce as a result.
And even as vaccination rates increase and service jobs return, many working mothers will find child care even harder to find, given child care center closures during the pandemic. Colorado already ranked seventh in the nation for child care costs and the pandemic will likely make this worse.
Although the Colorado proposal does not go as far as the president’s American Families Plan, it would create the infrastructure needed to quickly leverage additional federal funds if they become available, which could help Colorado’s child care industry rebuild quickly in the coming years.
Policies that help families pay for child care while also investing in the child care industry will help to stimulate the economy. When child care is more affordable to families, mothers are more likely to work and to work more hours.
This will help to ensure that families can pay their bills, put food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads. Children of working mothers also see important social and educational benefits in their own lives and careers.
Investing in the child care industry and expanding access for low- and middle-income families is also an investment in our future. When young children experience high-quality preschool environments, they are more likely to succeed in school and to graduate from high school. Children who attend pre-kindergarten are more likely to experience higher earnings as adults.
Investing in child care is also a critical step toward supporting families of color. The pandemic has been difficult for women and children generally, but the most devastating effects have been felt among families of color. Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities have had higher rates of severe illness and death from COVID-19.
And, these recent pandemic challenges intersect with the cumulative effects of systemic racism. Black women and Latinas are overrepresented in the child care sector, yet, like most child care workers, earn wages so low that they can often not afford to send their children to the centers in which they work.
Improving child care wages will help many working mothers of color. And supporting affordable access will help all parents and young children thrive.
Still, while these federal and state plans are important steps forward, they fall short in supporting child care for infants and toddlers.
Though people often define what teachers do with children from birth to three as “care” and what teachers do with 3- and 4- year-olds as “education,” scholars, policymakers, and parents know that care and education cannot be separated.
Ages 0-5 are critical periods of cognitive and social development. By prioritizing access to preschool only, infant and toddler care may get left behind. This can lead to unequal wages, with teachers of our youngest learners earning much less than teachers in public pre-K programs.
As scholars who study child care and women’s labor — and as mothers of young children ourselves — we know how difficult it has been for mothers to juggle work and child care during this pandemic. We’ve struggled to find quality child care and to pay for it.
The investments proposed by the president and governor will not fix all of the problems with our current child care industry, but they are important steps toward rebuilding our economy, fostering economic security for families, and educating our children.
Casey Stockstill is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver. Jennifer C. Greenfield is an associate professor and associate dean for doctoral education at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work.
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