The contamination of Flint’s water supply created an ongoing crisis that continues to jeopardize the health and well-being of tens of thousands of Michigan families, especially among children. But it also exacerbated an existing problem that is not unique to Flint — lack of access to high-quality early childhood education and care.
As study after study has shown, young children are especially vulnerable to lead contamination because it accumulates more quickly in their bodies than in adults. It also impedes their brain development. Like many communities across the country, we in Flint recognize that every child should have the opportunity to have a strong start in life, regardless of his or her circumstances at birth. This is especially so for children impacted by the water crisis, which is the case for far too many families in our community.
That’s why we established Educare Flint, where quality early learning and care starts at birth, even before traditional pre-K, and continues through age five. We cannot wait until kindergarten — a child’s brain is most flexible in the years prior, and access to quality learning and care experiences are essential to brain development. At Educare, we have been able to provide children with clean water, health screenings, and the care and support they desperately need. But none of these initiatives would be possible without the help of Congress and the administration, who supported investment in Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which are essential for our school.
In Flint, we see every day that our expansion of early childhood education and care programs has made a tremendous positive impact on our community, which should be a lesson to communities like ours around the country. Children shouldn’t have to wait for a crisis to get the care and attention they need, which is why I hope this issue will be a top priority for all candidates as the 2020 campaign continues to unfold. The men and women who’ve thrown their hats into the race to run this country should tell us how they will ensure all American children have the opportunity for a strong start in life.
Every day, we observe the difference that equitable access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education has on a community. High school graduation rates increase by 14%. College graduation and employment rates increase, too. In fact, research done by Nobel Laureate Dr. James Heckman in Ypsilanti, Michigan, just down the road from Flint, revealed that even the children of high-quality preschool participants had better rates of graduation, employment, and success in life. So, not only do the benefits of quality early childhood education create a better start for those who participate, they also carry on to the next generation and can break the cycle of poverty for families.
That’s why it comes as no surprise that studies have found public investment in early childhood education more than pays for itself, as a recent Wall Street Journal article explains. In fact, programs like Early Head Start and CCDBG have among the highest returns on investment.
Entire communities—and the entire country, for that matter—are uplifted when every child has access to a high-quality early childhood education. At Educare Flint, and its sister school Cumming’s Great Expectations, we employ a nurturing, family-centric approach to nearly 400 children from birth through age five, at no cost. Nearly 90% of the children enrolled in Educare and Great Expectations live in households earning the lowest incomes in our community, so our approach seeks to eliminate the poverty-driven education gap before children enter K-12.
A core principle of the Educare model is to engage parents in their child’s educational development. When parents know their young children will be cared for in an environment with a high teacher-to-student ratio, they can feel confident returning to work. This allows them to earn income and continue to participate in the economy. According to the Center for American Progress, the lack of access to affordable child care costs working families more than $8 billion each year in lost wages. Empowering families to return to work is a significant economic driver, especially in communities like Flint.
The cost of repairing Flint’s water infrastructure has been estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This must be resolved promptly, just like other acute crises plaguing communities around the country. At the same time, we should have the foresight to think about the development and health of our children holistically and pursue solutions that prepare them to lead healthy adult lives. If all children, no matter the circumstances of their birth, have access to a high-quality, stimulating, and attentive environment in the first years of their lives, we’re all better off. Our candidates for president should demonstrate the leadership needed to meet this challenge.
Denise Smith is the executive director of Educare Flint, which provides comprehensive educational, developmental, and family support services to more than 200 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers living in poverty.
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