Midlands Voices: The critical importance of early childhood programs in Nebraska

The writer is president of the Nebraska State Board of Education.

Nebraska communities are realizing the critical need for investments in high-quality early childhood care and education. Successful measures currently addressing the shortages include community/business partnerships, funding of resources, bridging cultures and languages and connecting schools with community child care. Time is running out as Nebraska communities begin to realize that the shortage of high-quality early care and education is already causing a huge negative impact on their towns and cities, as well as the quality of life and economic growth.

Recently, 20 statewide organizations came together to host the 2019 Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference, a daylong meeting in Kearney at which State Sen. Tom Briese gave opening remarks. More than 415 civic, business and education leaders from 92 communities across the state attended, including five state senators and five members of the Nebraska Board of Education.

Briese told the group, “It is critical to the growth of communities across Nebraska to have early childhood programs in place. … The business community also realizes the importance of the availability of quality early childhood programs. They know it is easier to attract employees to communities and locations that have quality early childhood programs available.”

Many of the points below are surprising, and several notable trends need to be addressed now.

  • Need for high-quality early care education: Parents are children’s first teachers, but most young children are not with their parents for many hours of the day. Nebraska ranks as one of the top five states for single-parent or two-parent families being in the workforce; nearly 75% of Nebraska children under the age of 6 have all available parents in the workforce. Roughly 62% of mothers with infants are in the labor force. And 84% of counties in Nebraska with child care facilities do not have enough available slots to meet the current demand. Ultimately, children pay the unfortunate price for the lack of early child care, with nearly 40% of children under the age of 6 (59,856 kids) at risk of failing in school due to poverty alone as a risk factor.
  • Affordability of early care and education: The annual cost of center-based infant care ($12,272) is higher than the average cost of college tuition at a public four-year institution in Nebraska ($8,510). In addition, the average child subsidy payment provided by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to assist low-income families with child care costs ($3,344) is less than one-third the cost of annual infant care.
  • Status and compensation of early childhood workforce: In 2015, the median annual salary for child care professionals in Nebraska was $18,706, which is nearly $7,800 below the poverty line for a family of four. The median annual salary for K-3 teachers, by comparison, was $41,000. To supplement their incomes, more than 11% of home-based providers have second jobs, and nearly 20% of center-based teachers, public PreK teachers and K-3 teachers report holding second jobs.
  • Nebraskans’ opinions regarding early care and education: The Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and Gallup conducted a public opinion poll to survey state concerns for early childhood care and education. The results showed 68% of residents said early care and education has a significant impact on the long-term success of children, with 67% believing that the state should make early care and education a higher priority than it is today.

In the words of Samuel Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, who also provided opening remarks at the conference, “We can work together to improve children’s early learning and development and we simply must. It’s within our reach to make Nebraska the best place in the nation to be a baby.”