By Fred Jones, Senior Director of Public Policy & Advocacy
Early childhood education (ECE) has become a major priority in the Southern Education Foundation’s work to make educational opportunities more equitable for all — and especially for students of color and those from low-income families.
Our expanding focus on ECE issues stems from a growing consensus across the South that adequate funding for programs serving children from birth to elementary school — including high-quality child care — are essential to the health and future of our region.
While SEF and others advocate for expansions of ECE programs at the state level, we are also working with our allies to push congressional leaders to help ensure that all infants, toddlers, young children, and their families have access to high-quality, student-centered programs.
This is why SEF has submitted a letter on behalf of a coalition of ECE advocates in six southern states to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, urging Congress to make critical investments in ECE programs for the upcoming FY 2024 budget and beyond.
ECE an education justice issue in the South
The South is home to more children under 6 than any other region in the nation, nearly 50% of the nation’s young children from low-income households, and about 60% of all Black children in the United States. Decades of research show that high-quality early learning opportunities can increase children’s academic readiness and overall wellness, propelling students toward the opportunity-rich life they deserve.
Young learners who participate in high-quality early learning programs are more likely to see long-term benefits such as higher graduation rates, lower arrest rates, and increased employment and earnings throughout their life. Improving ECE is one of our nation’s most critical issues and stands to benefit almost every member of our society.
The unprecedented crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic led to bipartisan action to stabilize child care through infusions of billions of dollars into existing programs. Nevertheless, families across the nation are seeing child-care costs increase or programs become unavailable because of the pandemic and shortages of workers nationwide. Today, the average annual cost of infant care outpaces rent in 21 states, rivaling the costs of in-state college tuition.
Stabilizing child care, the workforce
Limited access to high-quality early care not only impacts children. For many parents, lost earnings, incomplete studies, lower productivity, and unemployment are consequences risked by inaccessible child care. President Biden has proposed continued or additional funding for such critical ECE programs as Head Start, the Child Care Development Block Grant, and the Preschool Development Grant.
SEF and our many partners on this issue — including For Providers By Providers, GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, Institute for Child Success, Kids Win Missouri, Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, National Center for Families Learning, Save the Children, Save the Children Action Network, and The Education Trust in Tennessee — are urging Congress to approve this additional funding to adequately support hardworking families, our youth, and the economy. Now is the time for this essential federal investment.