This column has been rolling around in my head for the past two years since I retired from a 40-plus-year career in early childhood education. Throughout those many years I was employed as a child care teacher, director, supervisor, trainer, coach, researcher, policymaker and pre-K specialist.

I’ve seen a lot of change in how we think and talk about young children. When I started my career in the 1970s, I could not possibly imagine the president of the United States talking about child care. Gov. Mills has also been a great advocate. And, yes, we’ve made significant progress in understanding the brain and the critical importance of the first five years in its development and the impact on the rest of our lives. Child development researchers even discovered the importance of play for our brain – as if those of us who worked with children needed research to tell us. (My favorite college professor said that research in the early childhood field takes 20 years to tell us what we already know.)

So, this is all good, right? No, it is not. Why? Because we’re still not close to changing a culture that does not want to invest – fully invest – in the future.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many incredible foundations in Maine and the country that have given millions of dollars to support the early childhood field in many ways. And there are federal initiatives (Head Start) that have benefited and still do benefit young children and their families. But those benefit only some children, those who are lucky enough to be a part of them. Unfortunately, the basic formula of child care funding has not changed permanently. In a Sun Journal article published in the Aug. 22 Maine Sunday Telegram (“Child care closures threatening ‘workforce behind the workforce,’ experts say,” Page B2), Steve Wallace, CEO of the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston, lamented, “Everybody wants the cheapest price for their child care, but everyone that works there wants $15 to $16 an hour, and those things don’t work together.”

Yes, the COVID pandemic has magnified this problem, but it was always there. This is really nothing new. And I might add how saddened I was to read in the article that some parents will enroll their child in a program sight unseen, with little regard to quality. That’s a big step backward. Thus, the “child care trilemma” – quality, compensation and affordability – rears its ugly head. In fact, it’s never gone away. It’s always lingering around, after those wonderful grant-funded programs, temporary state investments and philanthropic gifts come to an end. The term was coined by professor Gwen Morgan, who was the child care guru from Wheelock College, back in the early 1980s, the first to really study the economics of child care.

Think of a three-legged stool, one leg representing quality (what’s best for children), another representing compensation (a well-paid workforce) and the third representing affordability (what parents can reasonably pay). Once you take away one leg of the stool, the other two cannot stand. Want quality and compensation? Parents will be asked to pay more than they can afford. Want compensation and affordability? Quality for children suffers because you must enroll more children than is safe. Want quality and affordability? Then teachers can’t be paid what they are worth.

That is pretty much where we are today and where we were 40 years ago. The child care workforce subsidizes the system through its low wages, always has. Until we consistently fund child care the way we fund public schools – through the tax base, as a stable line item in the budgets of both state and local governments – we are never going to get there. Early childhood education should be part of the common good, just like public school. But that means a major bipartisan paradigm shift in thinking and doing.

So, yeah, I’m still cynical that such a change can happen. I hope I’m wrong.

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