On April 1, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder formally recognized the Week of the Young Child. The proclamation underscores the importance of continuing to advance the early childhood education system, which today often leaves parents to fend for themselves until their child is old enough for kindergarten or a pre-K slot.

With help from Sasha Shunk, Mabel Bragg, 5, helps water the gardens in the “nature center” at Shunk Child Care in Portland last summer. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Portland has made progress toward instituting universal pre-K, but there is more work to be done to help our younger children be ready to succeed in school and beyond. Providing public early childhood care and education may seem like an expensive prospect, but it is far less costly than having students unprepared for school and parents with unreliable options.

I do not have children. But these young people are our future. And while the world has increasingly complex problems that require increasingly sophisticated solutions, that expression really should not be a cliché. Our very existence may depend on the innovations that today’s babies and toddlers will create. The first few years of their lives are their most foundational – by the time they are 5 years old, their brains are 90 percent developed. So why is that the earliest age when parents can tag the rest of us in to help educate this member of our community?

Up until the point when public education begins, parents must make excruciating trade-offs about their child care. In Portland, only 2,271 child care slots are available for the 3,500 children under the age of 5. If you are lucky enough to avoid a waitlist, you will pay an average of over $15,000 per year, per child. As Maine looks to attract talent and skillsets that fuel its economy, having child care that is both affordable and available will be high on people’s lists of desirable community traits.

Despite the hefty price tag of a child care slot, providers run on such slim margins that qualified educators are severely underpaid for their work and, therefore, are very difficult to attract and retain. While the pandemic exposes the fragility of our child care infrastructure, these facilities are desperately trying to do what they can to carry a weight we should carry together as a community.

As this battle for hard-to-find, expensive child care spots continues, parents and families privately struggle to make ends meet until public school. All the while, less fortunate kids fall behind on milestones that prepare them not just for kindergarten, but also for the rest of their educational future. These kids, besides being dealt a hand they did not deserve, can go on to be adults with incredibly expensive needs.

I am encouraged that as a community we are starting to discuss solutions about eliminating barriers to quality early care and education for our children. Progress is often slow, but it’s worth noting that while we search for a solution, women will shoulder the majority of the weight caused by a lack of child care. During the pandemic, women have been three times more likely than men to not be working because of COVID-related child care needs. Their careers and earning potential pay dearly for a gap in employment that is disproportionately absent from the resumes of their male peers. As a woman in the workforce, I would like to see more women sitting around the decision-making table, particularly moms, who bring unique leadership competencies like communication, steadfastness and an ability to think across many moving parts.

As progress creeps forward through initiatives like the Week of the Young Child, I ask my fellow community members and the city of Portland to consider early child care and education as a public good. It is not just the morally right thing to do – it is an investment we cannot afford to miss.

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