Why quality child care is key

Georgia has long endured the poor educational achievements that result from a failure to invest in high-quality early care and education for children. The economy is taking its toll on a child care system that needs to be thoroughly revamped for the sake of children, families and even the state’s economic future.

Fortunately, more of our leaders are beginning to understand the high stakes. Gov. Nathan Deal has publicly shown his support for early education. Recently, Bobby Cagle, commissioner of the state’s Department of Early Care and Learning, announced the state’s move toward a tiered-quality rating and improvement system.

That’s welcome news. We’re living in a time when child care is no longer a luxury; it’s a way of life for most parents, who increasingly must juggle the demands of working outside the home. Sixty-five percent of families in Georgia are using child care programs, and more than 380,000 children under age 6 are in the care of someone other than their parents for as much as 10 hours a day. And studies have shown child care is one of the top “stressors” for workers.

These families are right to be concerned. A 2010 study from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute found that nearly 70 percent of Georgia’s infants and young children are currently in low-quality care. More than three-quarters of family day care homes in Georgia are ranked “low quality,” while more than two-thirds of infant/toddler care classrooms and one-third of preschool classrooms are similarly ranked.

The poor economy isn’t helping. The most recent Quality Care for Children economic survey found that 600 child care programs closed in the past year because of the financial downturn, while only 7 percent of children in Georgia are in nationally accredited child care programs.

Translation: Fewer options for care, harder-to-find quality.

We must do better. Children and families have a right to expect safe, high-quality programs for care and early education — a place where kids can access the best learning opportunities at a time when their brains are at their most rapid stage of development. Creating this system of excellent child care will do more than benefit children and families. It’ll help the state’s economy.

Better-quality child care opens the front door to education, making sure our children are ready for school and reading to learn by the third grade. Research consistently shows that quality child care can increase high school graduation rates and college attendance, while reducing special education costs, crime and delinquency and teen pregnancies.

The facts are clear. We need to invest in early education now. It will take all of us investing and working together if we are to be successful. The earliest years of childhood are critical. The experiences children have during this time form the structure of the brain and set the foundation for all future growth and learning.

Pam Tatum is CEO of Quality Care for Children, an Atlanta-based nonprofit.