Texas children deserve better. It is likely you picked up the paper this week and it broke your heart. The stories of parents who lost their children are devastating, and we are thankful to the Austin American-Statesman for taking an in-depth look into an issue of such importance to young children and working families in our community.
The first five years of a child’s life are a critical period when 90 percent of all brain development occurs. What happens in these early years has a lasting impact from kindergarten readiness to high school graduation and beyond. For working parents, finding the right care for their children can be among the most difficult—and expensive—parenting decisions they face.
The American-Statesman rightly questions who is “watching” our children. But licensing oversight is just one piece of a complex system that is fragile, fragmented and chronically underfunded at the state and federal level. Every child in Austin deserves access to high-quality, accredited early care and education. And every working parent deserves confidence in knowing their children are in a safe, nurturing environment while they work to provide for their families.
Accreditation requires meeting standards well above basic health and safety licensing rules. This high-quality care provides a warm, responsive environment led by well-educated and compensated teachers with low student-teacher ratios, evidence-based curriculum, and parent engagement. Unfortunately, low wages in the child care industry stifle educational attainment and drive high turnover among child care workers in the region.
Quality child care is expensive but yields significant long-term benefits for children. The annual cost of high-quality care for infants ranges from $14,820 to $19,740 in Austin. However, the state Child Care Subsidy system only reimburses child care providers a rate of approximately $10,000 per year, so many high-quality providers are unwilling to enroll children whose families rely on subsidies. For working families with low income, in particular, high-quality care is simply out of reach. If we truly want to improve the system, we must invest in access to quality, not only regulation.
United Way for Greater Austin works to improve this complex system and ensure access to the high-quality care all children deserve. In recent years, United Way has seen impressive successes. Through the collective efforts of the Success By 6 School Readiness Action Plan, the number of children who have access to high-quality centers through the subsidy system almost tripled.
Yet there is still much work to be done. Despite these gains, only seven percent of the 34,000 children under the age of six living in families with low income in Travis County currently have access to high-quality subsidized care.
Austin Community Foundation has a vested interest in this issue as well. As the region faces a growing wealth divide, the Foundation works to bring together philanthropists, dollars and ideas to close the opportunity gap. The Foundation’s recent report, “Child Care – An Essential Work Support for Women,” reveals that the lack of quality child care options in Central Texas negatively impacts the economic security of women and children. The report also outlines recommendations for community stakeholders to overcome barriers to providing high-quality child care for all families.
Texas families need access to a child care system that is well-resourced, coordinated and data-driven. A two-generation approach protects and nurtures the health, safety and optimal developmental needs of young children while also increasing the economic stability and strength of today’s workforce.
While some coordinated efforts are already underway in Austin and Travis County, there is still much more work to be done. It will take local and state governments, nonprofits and philanthropists working jointly to address this critical issue.
Texas prides itself on being the best – our children deserve no less.
Smith is CEO of United Way for Greater Austin. Nellis is CEO of Austin Community Foundation.