by Paula Drew, Co-Director Wisconsin Early Education Shared Services Network
This is the sixth and final post in the series Uncovering Stories from the Early Care and Education Field During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A series which explores the challenges of our essential workforce. This series was inspired by interviews I did with child care providers across Wisconsin, the work that I do as co-director of the Wisconsin Early Education Shared Services Network, and my own past experiences as an early educator and director of a child care program. I wrote about the impossible choices of risking physical health to ensure financial viability. I wrote about the exhaustion setting in for providers who have been asked to do even more with less. I wrote about the magic and significance of this work and how that translates into thriving families and communities. I also wrote about what I believe is the biggest reason this field continues to suffer, the lack of a system to connect and support early childhood professionals.
This last piece has not come easy and has taken MANY rewrites. I have felt unsure how to close out something that is far from being over. At one point, I was holding out hope that by mid-August, we would be celebrating the $50B relief package this industry needs. But to be honest, it still feels far from that time and I am feeling demoralized. While Americans across the political spectrum agree that the federal government should fund early care and education to a larger extent, congress has not been successful in getting this done.
So – here we are not celebrating, still holding on until help comes. And as exhausted as I know everyone is, we cannot let up on advocating or we will be left out. And it cannot be just us, but our lawmakers need to hear from families and their relatives (think grandparents) to speak up too. Our essential early childhood workforce and our children growing up through this pandemic deserve more. As we get closer to the election, attentions will wain and then we may not have another opportunity for significant investment soon. The time is now and I believe together, we can still make change.
Through this pandemic, the early care and education sector has shown the incredible strength and collaboration needed to get this done. Where holes in our “system” have been exposed, providers have done an impressive job of helping each other out. They routinely share extra supplies, aid one other in navigating financial applications and regulation changes, and even share staff. They exemplify the “we are all in this together” rallying motto. One provider I spoke with had shared she was now connecting and reflecting with other colleagues from around the globe in weekly international zoom calls. The Facebook page, “Essential NOT Expendable” was created in March to facilitate online sharing of information by a Wisconsin child care director. This incredibly active page now has over 7,600 members from Wisconsin and far beyond. The “About Page” section starts with this statement:
“This is a group of dedicated early childhood professionals. We have committed our careers to caring for and protecting the youngest citizens in our communities. During this time of the COVID-19 outbreak, we find ourselves in need of both care and protection.”
Child care providers all over the country have connected on this page to share information and resources, to sympathize with and uplift one another. It has also been a great tool to unify advocacy efforts among the field. And a strong and united voice is critical to bring about the change we need.
My dear colleague, Kelly Matthews, and I often dream about what it would be like if early educators were seen and supported like NBA stars, sponsored by Nike and Adidas with the best possible gear (think futuristic work suits with built-in supplies and tech tools), paid what they deserve and invited to places of distinction to represent the “brain builders of America”. Where lack of health insurance, run-down facilities and low wages were no longer associated with this profession. Where these investments contributed to a better future for us all. Imagine how much more equitable the United States could become if our early educators made wages equal with their education, experience, and skills, while all children had access to high quality programs they need to thrive.
COVID-19 has magnified the already significant financial challenges of America’s early care and education sector. The United States spends less than .5% of GDP on early care and education, behind 36 other industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to fund a well-functioning early care and education system in America, we would only need to double this investment and spend a full 1% of our GDP. This amount is on par with family-forward countries like France, New Zealand, and the Nordic Countries. According to the Kids’ Share 2019: Report on Federal Expenditures on Children through 2018 and Future Projections, spending on children in the U.S. has been in decline and that decline is slated to grow over the next decade. Continuing this trajectory jeopardizes the very existence of an early care and education sector, exasperates the burden already felt by working parents and makes for worse outcomes for children.
Now is the time to act, friends! Be loud, be bold, and insist on supportive investments for the early care and education sector. Anything less than a significant federal investment will not be the change we need; and, we ALL need to work to make this possible. Our future story is yet to be written and I need to know that I did everything I possibly could to make it a new story, a better story, the story Kelly, myself, and all of us have dreamed about for centuries. Will you join us in one more fight? Because if not, nothing is going to get better; it’s not.
Needs ideas? Talk to each other, connect with advocacy networks and groups, get creative and speak with folks outside our industry willing to stand with us. Here are some tools to get you started: