There has been a great deal of news and editorial coverage of Maine’s child care crisis during this past year. And for good reason: the business community has learned many hard lessons during the pandemic. One of those lessons is that without reliable child care, parents can’t work. That makes helping fix parents’ barriers to high-quality child care a priority issue for business leaders. We all understand that. What’s less understood is what we mean by “quality” child care and why it matters so much.

There are three key elements of child care quality. First, a program’s physical environment must be safe, clean and attractive to children and use materials that stimulate physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Instruction and curriculum should be research-based. And, perhaps most importantly, the interpersonal interactions must be consistent, supportive and stimulate learning.

The heart of any early childhood care and education program is the relationship between the teacher and the child. Highly qualified early educators engage in nurturing interactions with children, supporting children’s social and emotional development, and also provide developmentally-appropriate instruction in key pre-literacy, pre-math and other academic skills. Thus, early childhood educators must be well trained, both before they start teaching and once they are on the job through continuous professional development. Adequate compensation is also key to attracting and retaining top talent.

The main driver of child-care costs is labor. Maine child care workers earn low salaries. The median wage for Maine early educators is $12.89 per hour, which is about $26,800 annually, compared to a $55,000 median salary for a Maine public school teacher (according to a 24/7 Wall St. review of federal statistics). Compensation tends to be lowest in private, community-based settings, which serve a majority of children.

To provide the level of care and attention needed to facilitate children’s development, child-to-teacher ratios have to be low. Because the child care “day” can be as long as 12 hours (far longer than a public school day), there is also a pressing need to cover the entire day with adequate staff.

Fortunately in Maine, we have a program and model that shows us how to do this important work, and which has proven outcomes for our youngest children, their families and the workforce.

In 2015 Educare Central Maine took its best practices and model to the Skowhegan and Somerset County area, which had the highest number of child risk factors in the state. They created Elevate Maine/Somerset, in partnership with the private-sector, CEO-led Maine Early Learning Investment Group, which funded provider professional development and the program’s evaluation. It began with a 2015 federal Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant. Child care centers and family child care providers in rural Somerset County offer increased quality birth-to-kindergarten-entry early care and education, to ensure that children enter kindergarten healthy and ready to succeed. Providers receive weekly visits that include coaching and mentoring, participate in professional development opportunities, and network with their peers. Providers also receive increased funding for resources and supplies. Parents receive education on parenting and child health and development, as well as family goal setting to support self-sufficiency. Goals of the initiative include: enhancing the quality of instruction, increasing family engagement and parent education to support child development, and providing comprehensive services (cognitive, nutritional, oral, mental and physical health).

Elevate Maine/Somerset’s evaluation affirms that children, families and early educators attain program benchmarks. Outcomes data demonstrate success: Children showed increases in vocabulary and language, and in initiative and self-regulation, with enhanced attachment relationships and social and emotional well-being, and reduced negative behaviors. In addition, 100 percent of parents received health and parent education. Family child care providers improved the quality of their programs’ physical space, materials and activities offered, and provider-child interactions, advancing on Maine’s Quality Rating Scale. Researchers estimate that the cumulative lifetime savings and tax benefit is nearly five times greater than the cost.

These positive results show us why high-quality child care is important today and for our future. And, most importantly, they provide us with a successful model for how this critically important work can be replicated across our state. Now is the time for state policymakers to act on this knowledge and remove the barriers that are holding back too many children, families and businesses.

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