For working parents like me, the only way to survive in Hawaii is to have quality child care. A bill going through the Legislature now aims to provide all 3- and 4-year-olds with access to early learning, which is a worthwhile goal. 

As the working parent of a 2-year-old, however, I believe this effort is too little, too late. 

House Bill 2543 is important because it aims to take real steps forward in creating early learning opportunities, and even more so for underserved populations.

But the bill emphasizes “school readiness” as the goal of early learning when it would be smarter to prioritize access to quality care from birth, when early learning actually starts.

This gap in affordable quality care since my daughter’s birth has truly affected my family’s ability to make ends meet. I needed affordable care for her when she was six weeks old, and when she was a year old, and when she was 18 months old.  And I know I’m not alone in needing access to infant care.   

The Legislature should consider the fact that early learning starts at birth. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

I also know that I am not alone in wondering why the legislative discussion of early learning doesn’t really consider the years before preschool.

Those early years are when parents need the most help in figuring out sustainable, equitable and affordable ways to balance work with quality child care.

Some folks have extended family to help out, which is truly wonderful.  I don’t, and I know many other folks don’t either. And even if grandparents can help, asking them to stand in for full-time child care professionals is an unfair burden on an aging population that itself needs loving care.

School readiness is an adult-centered idea: Children should be good at going to school because that’s what they’re mandated to do between the ages of 5 and 18.

On the other hand, quality care is a child-centered idea: Children should have their social, emotional, and intellectual needs met at home and with child care providers because every child deserves to be whole and well.

Quality care involves more than just babysitting and more than only academic learning. It requires engaged child care workers who help kids learn through play, access to the outdoors, and well-rounded intellectual development. 

To improve school readiness, it might seem pragmatic to work backwards and create more school for 3- and 4-year-olds. Yet a 3-year-old who presents with social, emotional, or learning challenges would have been better served by receiving quality care from birth.

Early learning programs can either treat symptoms of the gap in care from years 0 to 3, or they can work to prevent problems by closing that gap through quality care from birth onward.  Not only would children’s well-being be supported by rich learning environments, but parents would be in a better position to learn early about options and available services when challenges do arise.

Another confusing aspect of this bill is its proposal to create a “learning to grow” agency and an early learning coordinator under the Department of Human Services, given that the Executive Office of Early Learning already has the responsibility for much of the proposed coordinator’s work and is working to extend public pre-K through the Department of Education.

Rather than investing state funds in duplicating administrative infrastructure, the Legislature should focus on developing the economic drivers that would truly support public, high-quality early learning programs.

Every year, I spend money on child care I could instead put towards a down payment on a home. I accept that either/or reality as part of my life here, and I understand that part of my responsibility as a parent is to use my resources wisely according to my family’s priorities.

In making these choices transparently, I teach my child to do so as well. But I wish the choice between child care and housing were less hard, and I wish every family didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when facing their own choices for an affordable life here. 

But it could be different, if working families were valued more. 

I also wish that, collectively, we saw our relationships as our most important assets, and our goals as our greatest investments. I don’t want to be known as ALICE asset-limited, income-constrained, employed.  That’s not my name.  

Hawaii could excel in the child care sector. We could create incentives for people to become qualified child care providers and develop evidence-based standards for care. Explore options for teacher housing that enable people to confidently choose education as a profession.

Require child care facilities in new housing developments to increase access and ease commuting. Expand prenatal education so parents are prepared to make informed choices. Do something about paid family leave. 

Recognize that quality care is common ground, a place to meet to figure out how to care for all ages and stages of life.

We live with aloha in so many ways here. Competing for childcare resources, and having to settle for the paucity of options, is not one of them.  But it could be different, if working families were valued more.  

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