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Early childhood educators are being forced to make poor choices just when parents need them most

Making choices can be hard, but in a high-quality early learning environment, young children discover how to make wise choices one step at a time. Teachers help them understand how to work out a problem, make a plan to solve it and, finally, do something about it. When made poorly, the wrong decision can have devastating consequences. Early childhood advocates like us understand this. And that’s why we are deeply concerned about a choice that politicians are about to make that could have devastating consequences for families today as well as generations to come.

With the debt ceiling/deficit reduction agreement signed into law in June, federal agencies are being asked to tighten their belts and make spending cuts. Head Start and Early Head Start program directors now find themselves facing a difficult decision: They can choose to pay their teachers a livable wage or choose to continue serving children and families who need access to these life-changing programs. Sadly, current budget limitations won’t allow the program directors to do both.

Children who participate in Head Start and Early Head Start make significant progress in language and literacy and have better physical and emotional health outcomes throughout life. The Federal government prompted this tough choice when they told program directors that they may redirect funds typically used to serve children toward pay raises for teachers. Their hope was that raises will help directors retain existing staff and entice new workers at a time when Head Start and Early Head Start programs across the country are having difficulty doing so due to shamefully low wages. Related: Infants and toddlers in high quality child care seem to reap the benefits longer, research says

ut while that’s a potential win for the teachers, it would syphon away money needed to serve children by limiting access for low-income families in communities where underfunded Head Start and Early Start programs already can’t serve all the children who qualify. That leaves administrators forced to choose between teachers and children, and it is just one more symptom of a broken system. Over 50 years ago, America made the choice to not fully fund Head Start, and we’ve been paying for it in social spending ever since by leaving families in intergenerational poverty rather than making the investment needed to break that cycle. Head Start was launched in 1965 to give low-income children a summer catch-up program that would, it was hoped, enable them to start kindergarten on target with their wealthier peers. One summer was never enough to achieve this goal, and over the next few decades Head Start transformed into a full-day program for children between 3 and 5 years old. Early Head Start was created in 1994 to serve babies and toddlers up to age 3. Once again, the U.S. did not invest enough to meet the needs of all families with very young children living in poverty. Head Start and Early Head Start are still not reaching nearly the number of children living in poverty that they could if fully funded.

These new programs did help close some gaps for the lowest-income households, but never fully met the long-term goal of creating equity in early education. Today, Head Start and Early Head Start are still not reaching nearly the number of children living in poverty that they could if fully funded.

he National Institute for Early Education Research found that in Maryland, for example, only 26 percent of 3- and 4- year-olds who live below the poverty level are enrolled in Head Start. And just 8 percent of children under age 3 in poverty are enrolled in Early Head Start. That’s why we need to invest in the children. Yet, Head Start and Early Head Start teachers are paid significantly less than public school teachers, and as a result, programs are often unable to fill staff vacancies. Pay raises would certainly help, but won’t do much good if the programs then don’t have the funds to serve more children. We need to increase program budgets so Head Start and Early Head start can both pay teachers fairly and serve all children who qualify.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs pay so little they end up losing out to corporate chain giants like Starbucks, Walmart and McDonald’s. These chains have resources to pay more, offer better benefits and provide flexible schedules. But if early childhood educators are earning less than service industry employees, we’re sending a message that we value lattes over literacy, retail over readiness for kindergarten and burgers over brain architecture. We are also harming children by denying them access to these game-changing programs. Parents lose out, too: Head Start and Early Head Start take a two-generation approach to serving families, coordinating services for children and their parents and improving their economic, educational and health outcomes, Related: OPINION: The pandemic wiped out decades of progress for preschoolers. It’s time to get them back on track

Head Start and Early Head Start were last reauthorized by Congress in 2007. Washington needs to choose now to recognize how much these programs matter to our communities. The average spending per-child for these programs must be increased to keep up with inflation. We need to expand and open more programs in urban and rural areas to reach all the children who qualify. We also must raise the pay for the early childhood educators who currently earn the same near-poverty wages as the families they serve. This work is performed almost exclusively by women, and the majority are women of color. They deserve better. But directors, in good conscience, cannot reduce the number of children served even further, and in fact should expand coverage. Decision making is hard for kids, hard for Head Start and Early Head Start program directors and hard for politicians.

If teaching positions remain unfilled and programs refuse to reduce the number of children, the Office of Head Start could force programs to lose both child enrollment slots and funding. Program directors should not have to choose between balancing the budget on the backs of families or at the expense of educators. There is a third option: Give all children the strong start they need to succeed.

Laura Weeldreyer is executive director of Maryland Family Network. Christopher Benzing is executive director of Maryland Rural Development Corporation.

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