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Early childhood investment

On Feb. 26, the state’s House and Senate Ways and Means committees held a hearing in Greenfield on education in the fiscal year 2014 budget. I submitted testimony with one simple message: Increase investment in high-quality early childhood and out-of-school-time care and education and the educators who provide it.

In the last five years, state funding for early childhood and out-of-school-time education and care has decreased by more than $80 million. Funding for higher education has also declined, meaning the state picks up an ever-decreasing percentage of the costs of educating students, including those interested in careers in early education. Meanwhile, research continues to show that investments in high-quality early education and care target the most important time of brain development in young children. Every dollar invested produces a high rate of return, both for children and society.

I applaud Gov. Patrick’s efforts to build on the wonderful foundation already laid for a statewide system of high-quality early education and care based on these findings. I ask that special attention be paid to the issue of compensation for educators in the field.

I serve as a developmental educator for REACH, an early intervention program; as the out-of-school-time professional development coordinator for the Western Massachusetts Educator and Provider Support program and as an adjunct faculty member and work force grant coordinator in the education department of Greenfield Community College. Thus I am familiar with the entire chain of education and care, from birth through college and career. I know how important it is to enhance the work force that is the backbone of this statewide system.

Although research points to the need for a greater investment in early “brain building,” there has been only modest financial investment to support this work. Parents with incomes too high to qualify for state subsidies often pay the equivalent of college tuition for early education and care. In addition, the system also has too little funding to meet the needs of low-income working families, leaving many children on wait lists for a year or more. For the developing child, precious time is being wasted.

While the cost of early education and care grows, the wages and benefits for the early childhood work force have been stagnant at best. The field is so poorly paid that the state’s regional employment boards find it does not provide a livable wage.

Yet many in this group, primarily women, continue to give ever more of themselves to the children and families in their charge, while often shortchanging their own families to go back to school in order to meet the increased professional development demands of the field. Thanks to scholarships and financial aid from the state many early educators are pursuing college degrees, only to find no increase in wages tied to their increased educational attainment. Many do not enjoy the health, sick time and vacation benefits that most in the business world have come to expect. Therefore, the early childhood field suffers from high turnover and a decreasing number of people choosing to enter the profession, which defeats the best efforts of the Department of Early Education and Care to improve quality in community-based programs, Head Start and family child care homes, as well as in the public schools.

I ask the Legislature to commit to not just ensuring a space for every child that needs early education and care, but also to guaranteeing that all children receive high-quality early learning experiences by ensuring that the person overseeing and orchestrating their growth receives a fair and livable wage commensurate with their education, experience and commitment to the next generation of workers and citizens of our commonwealth.

Kim S. Audette lives in Sunderland.

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