OPINION: Early childhood education is key to bright future

Affordable and high-quality child care is essential to enable parents to work and give their children early learning opportunities to help them get a strong start in school and in life.

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the first years of a child’s life are the period of the most rapid brain development and lay the foundation for all future learning. Research has shown that a child’s vocabulary at age 3 can predict third-grade reading achievement, and 90 percent of parents surveyed say that early learning had a positive impact on their children’s emotional development and academic preparation.

Yet, many families, especially those with low or moderate incomes, struggle to find and afford the child care they desire for their children. At the same time, child care workers — the vast majority of whom are women — earn wages that are very low and leave them struggling to support their own families. Although recent state minimum wage increases have helped, there continues to be a decline in licensed child care and a lack of child care workers.

About half of all Michigan families live in a “child care desert” where affordable, licensed care is scarce. This is true for many rural areas of Otsego County. Where such shortages occur, the impact can be particularly severe for parents who work evenings, weekends or uncertain schedules.

Child care is expensive. In Michigan, the average cost per year for a 4-year-old’s child care is $8,890, and one year of center-based care for an infant or toddler costs almost as much as tuition for one year at a public university.

Although the cost of child care in Gaylord is lower, averaging about $150 per week for infants and toddlers and slightly less for 4-year-olds, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child care that costs more than 7 percent of a family’s income is considered unaffordable. In our community, middle-income families are paying 14 percent and more of their income for one child and 26 percent and more for two children. And eligible families with lower incomes rely on state support to afford child care.

We must encourage our state leaders to do more to help Michigan families access the child care they want and need, and support the people who provide that care, by implementing sound policies and a financing system that supports equitable access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education for all children birth through age 6, with a wage and compensation structure that attracts and retains the most talented early childhood educators.

Investing in high-quality early childhood education and early childhood educators will make Michigan’s future brighter, stronger and more competitive.