Providence Journal — Jeanne Cola: Childcare is a good taxpayer investment

My Turn:  Childcare a good taxpayer investment

The Rhode Island economy has started to show signs that it is rebounding. We’ve had good news about job growth and unemployment, and several notable employers have moved into the area. New programs will target the state’s widely acknowledged skills gap and the state has made it easier for many to obtain additional education past high school.

These are all important steps in addressing economic development. We’re not going to solve the workforce problem, however, without addressing deficits that will hamstring workforce development in our future.

A substantial body of research shows that a solid foundation is built in the earliest years of life and is critical to an individual’s long-term success. Research shows that a child’s earliest experiences affect brain development, and the formation of the brain in these earliest years directly correlates to the advancement of language, cognitive, social and emotional capacity.

The research makes sense intuitively. It’s clear that a child’s brain is in a dramatic state of development in those earliest years from birth to five, and of course a deficit during this period would have long lasting impact.

If Rhode Island wants to develop the workforce of tomorrow, while supporting today’s employees, then it needs to support early childcare. In our state, 73 percent of children under the age of six have both parents in the workforce — a rate that is higher than the U.S. rate — and we can only provide childcare for 70 percent of those children in licensed facilities. There are lengthy waitlists for infant care and the costs are very high. According to the Economic Progress Institute, a working family could spend more than a third of their income on childcare.

Of critical importance too, is the varying quality of care. Based on the standards set by Rhode Island’s tiered child-care rating system, only 9 percent of these facilities are considered high quality. In 2014, the Rhode Island Department of Education commissioned LISC Rhode Island to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s child-care facilities. The assessment, entitled The Rhode Island Early Learning Facility Needs Assessment, found that a very significant number of the state’s child-care facilities needed substantial and often costly upgrades.

Since 2009, Rhode Island has expanded its pre-kindergarten program and opened 60 free, high-quality classrooms. While pre-kindergarten is an important component of a child’s early education and expanding access is a positive step, Rhode Island has simultaneously reduced funding for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, which subsidizes childcare for low-income families in the workforce or in training programs. Rhode Island’s program, with one of the most restrictive eligibility limits and reimbursement rates in New England, is critical to working families and our underserved communities.

Research tells us that the lack of investment in programs where children are spending significant amounts of time during their most rapid period of development is a tremendous missed opportunity. When children are already entering the school system with learning deficits, it’s time to focus on that period where support can have the most dramatic impact.

If we stay the course, today’s minimal investment in affordable, high-quality child care programs and facilities will erode our economy, diminish productivity, and result in a population that is ill-equipped to be the workforce of tomorrow.

Jeanne Cola is the executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Rhode Island.