Stein column: Early childhood education is about to have its day
Although early childhood education has among the highest returns of any educational program, it is underappreciated and underfunded. But efforts statewide and locally are aiming to change that, making it available to all children in our community.
The first few years of life are the most formative for future development. Children who have an enriching early childhood education (ECE) in the years before kindergarten show healthy cognitive development, higher academic achievement, fewer social-emotional difficulties, and even more successful careers later in life. Years after preschool, the effects can be measured in reductions in remedial education, crime rates and unemployment. Studies have shown that high quality early childhood programs can yield a $4 to $7 return for every dollar invested.
The beneficiaries of ECE are more than the children themselves. Employers count on preschools to provide child care for their workers. Affordable ECE allows parents to take on jobs, advance their education, and contribute to their communities. Society benefits through lower costs in areas such as special education, health care and criminal justice. When available and affordable, ECE is a win for everyone.
Colorado voters approved Proposition EE, a ballot initiative to fund preschool by increasing taxes on tobacco products, by a two-to-one margin in 2020. Starting in August 2023, preschool will be free for all 4-year-olds for 10 hours per week. In addition, the state is creating a new early childhood agency, drawing together all things early childhood into a cabinet-level department and elevating the stature of ECE. Local agencies will be established in each region to help families access funding and navigate enrollment.
While it’s promising to see the state prioritize ECE, these ambitious statewide plans leave many questions unanswered. There are questions about the capacity in our current network of ECE providers to take on a potential surge in enrollment, and about how to support funding and quality in diverse programs ranging from large school districts to private preschools to in-home child care. The state has yet to determine which agency will coordinate the work in the Roaring Fork valley.
In addition to finding enough physical spaces in which to house programs, there is already a shortage of early childhood educators, exacerbated by chronically low wages in the field. As underfunding of preschools is even worse than K-12 education, and there can be fewer students per teacher in a preschool classroom, ECE teachers are paid about half of K-12 teacher salaries. Even though salary increases in the Roaring Fork Schools will raise our ECE teacher salaries above the top third of local wages, typical ECE teachers start at about $18 per hour. Our society lags in valuing ECE in the same way that it values other important professions.
The Roaring Fork Schools are working with local agencies and other preschool providers to prepare for the transition. We just completed our own strategic roadmap for ECE by engaging a wide range of stakeholders to assess the current state of ECE in the district and to reimagine a future direction for our youngest students. After a series of interviews, focus groups and planning sessions with educators, parents and community partners, we have established a vision that all families have access to high quality, affordable, culturally and linguistically appropriate early childhood education that prepares students for kindergarten and beyond.
In order to achieve that ambitious vision, we plan to expand our hours and days of operation, and eventually offer 10-hour programming year-round to working families. In addition to helping families access funding through Proposition EE and other public sources, we will pilot a sliding scale tuition program for Roaring Fork Schools employees in the coming school year.
Quantity must go hand-in-hand with quality. Therefore, we will be investing in curricular resources and professional development for our teaching staff, improving culturally responsive teaching, dual language instruction and support for students with special needs. Our preschools need not only to reflect our community in enrollment but to respond to the linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity and needs of our families.
Assisted by mill levy funding approved by voters this past November, and in alignment with state programs and resources, we will be able to invest more in creating teacher pipelines through scholarships and internships for aspiring educators.
The ECE landscape is changing rapidly in Colorado, and we are gearing up for changes in funding, programs, educator credentialing and family services. Early childhood is finally about to have its day, and the Roaring Fork Schools, in partnership with the local preschool community, will be ready to seize it.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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