Credit: George Danby

I was recently talking with a public pre-K teacher about the similarities and differences between teaching in a center-based program versus an elementary school. At one point in our conversation, she said, “I am not in the business of child care.” That statement has stuck with me for weeks.

When a teacher of young children sees herself as different from another teacher of young children, it reflects the policies at the national and local level that place more value on one professional over another. In Maine, and across the country, educators work in home and center-based programs with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, in elementary, middle, and high schools, and in colleges and universities. Regardless of setting, each one does essential work.

Our education policies and financing determine what is a public good and what is not. Where we choose to invest our limited resources sends a message about who and what we value as a society.

Our K-12, and increasingly PreK-12 school system needs greater public investment. Our community college and state university system needs greater public investment. And our early childhood education system needs to be recognized and valued for its important role with significant public investment, because right now it isn’t and with serious consequences for young families and our workforce.

In the United States, 53 percent of our early childhood educators receive public assistance. In Maine, their median wage is only $11.18 an hour. Why?

While public K-12 education is guaranteed for all, the burden of financing our children’s early learning is on families. In Maine, the average annual cost of center-based child care for an infant ($10,043) is more than University of Maine annual tuition ($8,790). And these parent fees don’t bring in enough revenue to allow for substantial increases in educator wages. Early care and education is labor intensive and personnel costs account for the largest expense in most programs. The current model is a no-win situation. Parents can’t pay more, and educators can’t make less.

We know that the majority of families in Maine need reliable, high-quality child care, because 73 percent of children under age 6 in Maine have all their parents in the workforce. To fill this need, we must recruit and retain skilled early childhood educators. We must invest the funds to ensure that the teachers of our youngest children can complete their credentials and degrees and earn worthy compensation.

We aren’t supporting the early childhood workforce in a meaningful way, while at the same time young families are struggling to find and afford programs for their children. We are in a child care crisis, and we have work to do to fix the problem.

This work does not begin and end with educators and families. You have heard the phrase “it takes a village.” Well, this work takes a village. When families don’t have access to high-quality early care and education, parents’ ability to have stable, full-time work is disrupted. Maine families and businesses will do better when we have an early childhood infrastructure in place.

We have the opportunity to take steps towards a solid infrastructure this year with Gov. Janet Mills proposing funds for public Pre-K and state legislators proposing initiatives to improve support and funding for early childhood educators, child care programs including Head Start, home visiting parent education, and early childhood mental health consultation. These are the building blocks of an early childhood system.

Opponents may argue against the importance of these initiatives, but brain science research has found that supporting child development — particularly from birth to 5 years — is a foundation for a prosperous and sustainable society, and economists have found a 13 percent return on investment for comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five early education.

When schools, nonprofits, businesses, and government officials join forces to finance and support early care and education, we will see our economy and our people thrive. Let’s collaborate, innovate, and celebrate that early care and education is everyone’s business.

Tara Williams is the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children.