Early childhood education is more than day care

Originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican: https://www.santafenewmexican.com/opinion/editorials/early-childhood-education-is-more-than-day-care/article_d3370a64-3d5d-11ea-9f67-4f370fac81f3.html

Anyone who thinks expanding early childhood education in New Mexico has been or will be an easy task is delusional.

Look at this recent quotation from Sen. Bill Sharer: “When you put the kid in day care all day long and then send them home to go to sleep, they’re not learning anything about family. … They’re like cattle. You shove them along, you feed them and then you slaughter them.”

The Farmington Republican was responding to the governor’s early childhood proposals, a focus of this short legislative session.

It should go without saying that early childhood education is more than warehousing children.

And families who cannot support themselves on one income depend on both day care and early childhood schooling to keep their children safe, engaged and learning as parents go off to earn a living.

The days of mom home all day with Joey and Sue vanished long ago. For many lower-income families, they never existed. Mom was cleaning houses or waiting tables while dad also worked. Children were passed around to grandmas or relatives or left home alone. No one was comfortable, but feeding the family came first.

Having affordable, reliable and safe child care ensures parents can work — both for necessity and fulfillment — and children receive the attention, discipline and affection they deserve. It’s peace of mind now and a stronger society later.

That’s because with excellent early learning, children — even the most disadvantaged — receive the support they need to start school ready to excel.

Early childhood education is more than day care. It should be an age-appropriate approach to learning. Dynamic classrooms feature sand play, blocks, paints and those tools of learning that grab a child’s attention. Play, after all, is how young children learn.

Expert teachers guide the children — although kids should be leading much of what happens — into activities that bolster readiness to read and learn mathematics

Meanwhile, mom and dad can work without worrying whether the babysitter will use the television to calm the children or if their kids will get outside to play and run.

When the family comes together after work and school, the children aren’t sent straight to sleep. No, the family can eat dinner together, read stories and otherwise engage about the day. Weekends are times for long stretches of family togetherness. There’s plenty of opportunity for family sharing even when children aren’t cared for by a parent during the day.

Sharer’s comment is insulting on other levels. Children in classrooms are not cattle. They aren’t being shoved. Yes, they are being fed, and we hope all lunches are as inviting as the ones served through United Way of Santa Fe’s Early Learning Center at Kaune. But there’s no slaughter at the end of the experience, and for Sharer to state otherwise, even for exaggerated emphasis, is offensive.

Early learning supplements the home while supporting parents and families. And it has been shown in other states and countries to help children be ready for formal education. It also is voluntary, so parents who prefer to keep children at home can do so, something skeptics should keep in mind.

As New Mexico works to reform its educational system, early childhood education is key to a successful transformation. The stumbling block for years was how to pay for it.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has switched the debate from whether the state should use its Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for expansion of early childhood education. Instead, the Legislature is talking about establishing a stand-alone early childhood education fund — the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund — using $320 million in a one-time appropriation and proceeds from other sources when necessary. This would provide $20 million the first year to grow programs.

Other proposals this session included expanded funding for the early childhood education department and money to support early childhood education workers. It is evident New Mexico is sincere about improving early childhood for the kids of this state.

Now, how to persuade skeptics? Considering there have been philosophical reasons to oppose expansion as well as worries about the budget in the past, persuasion is complicated. That’s why expansion of early childhood education has always been a tough fight. This year is no exception.