Advocate says learning should start early

Beth Oppenheimer

It took 18 months for new mother Katie Babino to get her son into a high-quality early childhood education program in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.

The long waitlist at her preferred location and the high cost of comparable programs placed Babino in a tough situation: She had to work part-time because she couldn’t enroll her son into a full-day program.

“I knew I wanted to return to work after a couple months off, but I had nowhere for my son to go,” said Babino, the program assistant for career technical education at LCSC. “It was really challenging and put a lot of stress on me.”

The Early Childhood Education Forum held Thursday at Lewis-Clark State College focused on the importance of more accessible and affordable child care options for kids who are not yet old enough for kindergarten.

Providing education during those early years helps kids build the needed foundational skills to succeed in school and later in the workforce, said Beth Oppenheimer, the executive director for the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.

“We know a competitive, strong workforce begins with a strong education system,” Oppenheimer said. “Historically, we always viewed the start of learning at kindergarten or first grade ... but we know through a growing body of research that learning actually begins at birth.”

Oppenheimer said the lack of options affects businesses’ ability to hire and retain qualified employees.

As companies face a shortage of skilled workers, adults — mostly women — at times leave the workforce to care for their children, Oppenheimer said, which in turn affects the economy.

Women make up nearly half of the workforce in the nation, but in recent years, that number has stagnated or declined in part because of child care options, Oppenheimer said.

A statewide survey administered last month showed that 59 percent of participants had experienced challenges arranging child care, while 61 percent of employers interviewed said they provide no support for an employee’s child care needs.

A solution could be for businesses to offer subsidies for child care as part of a benefits program, or to implement an on-site facility to serve families with young children.

“I know there are barriers for businesses to provide child care, with the No. 1 being cost, but I would challenge that answer and ask the businesses, ‘What is the cost of doing nothing?’ ” Oppenheimer said.

Those costs to businesses come in the form of employees who take personal time off, are late or absent, or work reduced hours because they have to care for their children because child care options aren’t easily available or they’re too expensive.

As for the cost to parents and guardians, the average Idaho family spends about 22 percent of their income on child care for two children, Oppenheimer said.

Costs for one kid in an early childhood care and education center can rival a year’s worth of college tuition and the cost of two children in child care is comparable to that of an annual mortgage payment, Oppenheimer said, as it climbs to almost $13,600 annually.

The forum brought together supporters of early childhood education as they worked to identify what local actions could be taken to help address the challenges.

Oppenheimer said the conversation was a starting point that will help create awareness of the issues.

The forum resulted from an $8,000 grant Lewis-Clark State College’s KinderCollege received in April of last year through the initiative “Preschool the Idaho Way.” The collaborative’s goal is to find solutions through partnerships and shared resources to address the lack of child care opportunities.

Oppenheimer said Preschool the Idaho Way was developed because the state continually chose not to invest in early childhood education. The Idaho Legislature only funds a half-day kindergarten program. But Oppenheimer said requests for pre-k funding were flawed.

“There was nothing to fund,” she said. “There’s no model, there’s no system (for early childhood education in Idaho). ... Now we can build a model of what it can look like and then go to the Legislature and say, ‘We want sustainable funding.’”

Alicia Robertson, an assistant professor in early childhood education at LCSC, said KinderCollege plans to apply for an implementation grant from Preschool the Idaho Way to become one of those model programs.

The forum was put on by KinderCollege, the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Tomtas may be contacted at jtomtas@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.

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