We’re witnessing a mounting workforce crisis across the country and here in Idaho. Though employment rates are high, the strength of our economic future is in jeopardy as businesses struggle to find and retain workers with the skills needed for long-term success.
Education, rightfully, is central in discussions about bridging this divide. But those conversations often overlook a critical element: high-quality child care. It’s time to start recognizing child care as early education and acknowledging the promising role it can play in what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation identifies as a two-generation approach to strengthening our workforce.
To understand the importance of high-quality child care, we first need to acknowledge that the structure of work and family has fundamentally shifted. In most households, it is no longer the case that one parent works while one stays home. There are 114,521 working mothers across Idaho – and more than 75 percent of them are married, according to Census data compiled in the most recent Child Care Aware State Fact Sheet. Among those working moms, more than 12,300 have an infant. Yet a 2019 study by WalletHub ranked Idaho as one of the worst states to be a working mom, with the worst child care system in the country.
With no state-funded preschool options, families across the state struggle to afford early learning opportunities. For two children – an infant and a 4-year-old, as an example – average child care costs can reach about $13,600 annually, according to a 2018 Child Care Aware report. And even parents who do have the financial means to pay for child care and preschool often struggle to find spaces in programs with certified teachers and research-based curriculum that are close to where they live or work.
When working parents encounter these types of challenges with child care arrangements, they find themselves missing work, turning down professional development opportunities, cutting back hours or leaving the workforce altogether. That is not productive for anyone, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Access to affordable, quality child care enables parents to stay in the workforce, be their most effective while at work, and continually gain skills to succeed in a rapidly changing world.
Child care centers also play a crucial role in building our future workers, whether we choose to acknowledge that role or not. There is no distinction between child care and early learning, because there is no distinction between anything a young child does and early learning.
The brain itself is built through a child’s response to experiences in the earliest years of life. When a child spends those early years interacting with nurturing caregivers in a secure environment, the brain forms critical connections that are the foundation for all future cognitive, social and emotional development. But when a child lacks those supportive interactions with adults – or spends those early years in a damaging environment – that brain architecture will never be as strong.
It’s not possible to drastically improve Idaho’s K-12 performance – or to see significantly more of our state’s young adults hold a college degree or professional certificate – if we ignore the most critical time in a child’s brain development. If we don’t make a commitment to high-quality early learning now, we are failing to prepare Idaho’s children for an economy that increasingly demands critical thinking and communication skills rather than performing routine tasks.
The key is to direct our attention and investment to a system that is already determining our state’s educational and economic future. The sooner business leaders, policymakers and community members commit to high-quality child care, the sooner we can build a stronger Idaho.
Beth Oppenheimer is executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (Idaho AEYC).