Lisa Hildebrand is executive director of the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children. Jeanne Cola is executive director of LISC Rhode Island. Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, contributed to this commentary.
As Rhode Island navigates through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lays the groundwork for an economic rebound, there’s a critical investment voters can make on the March 2 special election ballot that will help our working families get back to their jobs, help set our state’s young children up for lifelong learning, and help employers grow their businesses.
Voting YES on Question 5 will approve the Early Childhood Care and Education Capital Fund, a $15-million investment to improve and expand Rhode Island’s child care and early learning facilities so they can serve more working families and provide our children with the high-quality learning experiences they deserve.
Child care is essential. That has always been true for families with young children juggling the demands of work and parenting. And during COVID, it has become even more clear that access to affordable, high-quality child care options is essential to the functioning of our economy. Put simply, when child care options are not available, working families cannot get back to work.
A recent national survey conducted by Washington University found that 24% of families with children had lost a job or income during the pandemic due to a lack of suitable child care, with Hispanic households, low-income households, self-employed households, and households with very young children being the most affected.
Even before the pandemic, finding quality, affordable child care in Rhode Island was difficult. There are currently 24 cities and towns that have more than three infants and toddlers needing care for every one licensed child care slot available. This is known as a child care desert.
Because of high demand for child care and this limited supply of seats, Rhode Island parents are paying on average $11,000 per year for a quality child care placement, with many parents forced onto waiting lists for months until a seat becomes available.
That’s why Rhode Island needs to increase the number of child care seats available, lower costs for working families, and ensure that our child care programs have great facilities that encourage learning and exploration. Voting yes on Question 5 will be a big step forward toward meeting these goals.
Of the $15 million that would be approved by voting yes on Question 5, the vast majority would go to Rhode Island’s network of child care programs and home-based providers to invest in and grow their facilities. This will mean refurbishing and reconfiguring existing spaces, upgrading learning spaces, and constructing additions and new facilities to add new child care seats.
This investment will directly benefit our state’s young children. An extensive body of research shows that providing high quality early learning environments and programs for our youngest 0-5 aged learners sets them up for success in school and life. Upgraded learning spaces will give our children great environments to learn, play, and thrive. It will also provide our state’s early childhood educators with the high quality learning environments they need to engage and teach our young children during these crucial early years.
Investing in the expansion of child care seats will also help our state’s economy in numerous ways. First, it will help ensure that more working families have reliable child care options so they can get to their jobs. This is also critical to Rhode Island businesses of all sizes, who need a productive workforce that includes working parents. It means helping our child care providers, many of them small businesses themselves, with the resources they need to expand their facilities and grow their businesses. And finally, upgrading child care facilities is an investment in early childhood education which will pay learning and economic dividends for our children for decades to come.
As we begin to rebound from COVID-19, now is the time to invest in our working families and children by voting yes on Question 5 to improve early learning facilities and increase quality, affordable child care seats across Rhode Island.