Ask any teacher about their challenges and they’ll tell you, “I wish I got to them earlier.” I know, because I used to teach remedial reading to 7th and 8th graders who struggled with basic punctuation.
On my first day as a State Representative in January, I introduced two bills that are crucial to building a stronger and more prosperous Kentucky. HB 112 would mandate and fund full-day kindergarten, and HB 113 would provide pre-K for all 4 and 5-year-olds in Kentucky.
High-quality early childhood education is the solution we need, not just for kindergarten readiness (in a state where only half of incoming kindergarteners are deemed ready to learn each year), but for teaching children social-emotional skills, conflict resolution, delayed gratification and more. We can professionalize and fairly compensate early childhood education teachers, almost all of them underpaid and underestimated women. We can increase the maternal workforce participation rate for mothers who thought they had to choose between working and raising kids.
Even after filing my bills, I continue to learn how to shape policies that make citizens’ lives better. One constituent who works to prevent child abuse told me what a difference it would make for caring adults to lay eyes on children who might be abused at age 4 instead of at age 6 when kids are currently required to enter school.
As I’ve worked to start a conversation in Kentucky about the benefits of pre-K for all, I’ve also learned that there’s an angle for everyone. We know that early childhood education can help to close persistent achievement gaps between white students and students of color as well as affluent students and low-income students. We also know that expanded public pre-K options would ease the significant burden on middle-class families who are spending tens of thousands of dollars on childcare each year. To put a face on it, I share my annual daycare bill for two kids at a wonderful facility: $22,000. Add student loans and retirement accounts and you can see why millennials are so frustrated with their economic outlook.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines “affordable” childcare as costing 7% of a family’s income but the average family is paying more than that in all 50 states. Start asking real families what they’re paying and you’ll learn what toll the cost of childcare is taking on their quality of life. A mother in my district told me she’s using her inheritance to cover some of the $100,000 it takes to pay for childcare for two kids from 6-weeks-old to the start of kindergarten.
“The things I could have done with that money,” she told me once. She envisioned saving for the kids’ college, paying off school loans or putting a larger down payment on her home.
Another mom in my district told me that she was able to leave an abusive marriage only because she qualified for subsidized pre-K when her daughter, now in middle school, was little. Without it, the low-wage job she got wouldn’t have paid for childcare and all their expenses. This freedom should be available to all parents in every income bracket.
You might have heard about pre-K and 3-K, an educational program for three-year-old children, in places like Washington, D.C. and New York City. But this is not just an idea that should be reserved for larger cities. Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida are leaders in implementing pre-K. My goal this first year was to introduce the idea. Now we have Republican interest, the media is paying attention and we’ve garnered the support of the largest-ever House Democratic Women’s Caucus. We’re ready to continue building the momentum needed to bring lasting change to our children and families.