Watching the President’s State of the Union address last week, I had to lean in closer when he called on Congress to support “high-quality early childhood education” to see both sides of the aisle clapping in agreement. It wasn’t just the fact that early childhood education (ECE) had bipartisan support; it was remarkable that it had been brought up at all. The New York Times columnist Gail Collins remarked the next day, ECE is now so popular, if it “were an actor, it would be Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep.” But that would imply ECE has been a national darling for years – it hasn’t.
In 2002, when I first became a fellow at All Our Kin as a college freshman, it was de rigueur in policy discussions about low-income families to discuss welfare-to-work, or what was sometimes referred to as “workfare.” Regardless of where you came out on that debate, one consequence was clear – millions of low-income families needed access to early education and child care for their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. There were some federal and state dollars for childcare vouchers, but there was no national plan for ECE and the vouchers were woefully underfunded. (In fact, the Connecticut state “Care4Kids” voucher program hasn’t increased its payment to childcare providers in over a decade, though it may be poised to do so soon.)
Against this backdrop, Jessica Sager and Janna Wagner started the remarkable organization you come to read about in “All Our Words.” They asked a basic question – where do most children caught in this policy gap spend their days? With the answer – family child care programs – they got right to work. They recognized that many women (nearly all were women) were already informally caring for young children in their communities and that pouring resources into education, training, and business development for these family child care providers would help make sure the youngest and most vulnerable children in the New Haven area had access to high-quality early education. And, these efforts also energized a community of women whose work became recognized for the professional, transformative work that it is. They are small business owners and teachers and community liaisons. They practice early literacy and problem-solving with the children in their programs, but they also link these children with early intervention services, counsel parents on child nutrition, and advocate for children and families. And, though the work involves long hours for pay far less than the average elementary teacher, they stick with it. When I scroll through All Our Words, I see stories by and about many of the same providers I worked with when I was a policy fellow seven years ago. It’s a testament to these women’s grit and dedication, as well as to the effectiveness and quality of the work AOK does.
I am thrilled that early childhood education is having its day in the sun. But I hope that the attention on education doesn’t miss the opportunity to highlight the important work by the educators and the benefits of their work for communities at large. We need to remember that when we talk about commitments to invest in early education (and to be effective and high-quality, the investment must be substantial), we must commit to investing in children’s educators, many of whom are family child care providers. And All Our Kin’s effective, sustainable, and wildly successful model does just that.
— Nazneen Mehta is a former Development & Legal Fellow at All Our Kin.