The recent child care rally in New Haven.

Recently educators and families across Connecticut marched in rallies designed to send a message to our governor and our legislature: Our state’s child care system is in crisis. And we need major public investments to fix it.

At the Friends Center for Children, desperate families call us looking for safe, affordable, immediate care. Not only are we unable to accommodate them, but we can’t provide them with good alternatives, either. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed our industry to the breaking point.

Child care professionals are leaving in droves for better-paying jobs. Connecticut child care workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are female, earn an average of $27,976— far below Connecticut’s per capita income of about $45,000. If we continue to pay our early educators such low wages, the workforce crunch we’re already facing will only get worse.

A recent poll conducted by the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance found that 62% of Connecticut child care programs are operating at a loss, four out of five programs have staff vacancies. Many families across the state can’t afford child care.

On the morning of our statewide rallies, child-care providers opened late to raise an urgent question: What would Connecticut do without child care? To put it plainly: The entire economy rests on the shoulders of this system, and our economic recovery from COVID will not last if the system collapses. If we want high-quality, affordable, safe and joyful care and education for our children, we must pay for it.

Investments in Connecticut’s child care system have been ignored for far too long, despite the proven return on investment. Codified by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. James Heckman, every dollar that Connecticut invests in high-quality early care and education nets a $7 to $13 dollar return. And yet state-subsidized programs have not seen a rate increase since 2015.

That’s why we’re asking state leaders to make a bold commitment: We’re seeking an investment in early childhood education of $700 million annually. These funds will help families lower costs, raise wages for teachers, and provide opportunities for strapped programs to expand.

The money would allow more child care programs to provide their workers with health insurance — a critical benefit that allows them to stay competitive with other industries that are attracting more and more of their employees. The funds would also expand scholarships for educators who want to pursue degrees in early education, because low wages leave child-care workers staring up at a mountain of student debt.

Investments like these would transform the lives of Connecticut’s children and families. They would also give us a real chance to re-imagine our child-care system so that all children can thrive.

Giving all children, regardless of race or place, access to high-quality programs means that educational opportunities would no longer be tied to the privilege of economic advantage. We can’t say we’ve fixed the crisis we face unless all families have access to affordable, quality options that set their kids up for lifelong success.

Everyone wants high-quality options for their children, but the question becomes: How do we define quality? The principles of ideal learning environments provide a strong foundation for demonstrating what quality means. Ideal learning programs champion personalized instruction that’s tailored to each child’s individual needs, and they emphasize play and interpersonal relationships as essential elements of learning. The concepts that inform these approaches are grounded in the science of child development and leading research on how kids learn best.

Major investments in early education would allow us to expand existing high-quality models across the state to serve more children. It’s time for Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature to step up and support Connecticut’s families. 

If they don’t, the consequences are a matter of simple economics: Low wages and poor benefits will push more child care workers out of the industry. Classrooms will close. Parents will be forced to stay home to care for their kids. Businesses will struggle to find workers, and Connecticut’s economy will shrivel.

That’s why our state leaders must invest in the early childhood industry now. Quality, affordable child care means parents and guardians can get back to work and have more disposable income to support their families. An equitable, high-quality early childhood system will benefit all of Connecticut’s residents and our economic recovery. We cannot afford to wait.

Allyx Schiavone is a member of the Child Care for Connecticut’s Future coalition, the executive director of the Friends Center for Children and the co-founder of New Haven Children’s Ideal Learning District (NH ChILD).