Eagle County Commissioners: Investments in early childhood critical to community success (column)
Eagle County government has a long history of investing in early-childhood programs, and one of our high priority strategic plan objectives is to expand early-childhood development opportunities.
Over the years, we’ve supported the Early Head Start program, child-care assistance programs to help with tuition costs and the Nurse Family Partnership program that provides home visitation to first-time mothers. However, we know there is a lot more work to do.
In 2016, we completed the Eagle County Early Childhood Roadmap in partnership with Eagle County Schools. The roadmap provided a full scan of the early-childhood needs in our community. It identified more than $11 million in programs necessary to fill the gaps in services for young children and their families.
In response, the county formed an Early Childhood Advisory Group, which used recommendations from the roadmap to identify priority areas and investment opportunities that would have the largest educational and economic impact in our mountain community.
Subsidizing the cost of infant and toddler care for licensed centers is paramount to assuring these providers keep their doors open and that working parents have options. In fact, the county has stepped in several times over the past few years to keep centers from closing, which would have further reduced this critical workforce infrastructure.
The operating costs of caring for children ages 6 weeks to 36 months are exceedingly high, and often there is a gap between what parents can afford to pay and how much it costs to provide high-quality services. This results in a shortage of care for this age group. At the recommendation of the advisory group, we are initiating a small pilot program whereby licensed infant- and toddler-care providers could receive funding based on their quality rating.
Improving workforce recruitment, training and retention in the field of early childhood ensures a high-quality early childhood care and learning experience for more children. Children spend so much time in child care before the age of 5 that the environment could either promote or hinder their development and they may enter kindergarten unprepared.
Often, qualified teachers are lost to more profitable industries that can afford to pay higher wages. Again, at the advisory group’s recommendation, the county is implementing an additional pilot program that would provide a small salary supplement to teachers who meet certain eligibility criteria to address this wage gap.
There is a tremendous amount of child care delivered within the county that is classified as “families, friends and neighbors.” These folks aren’t licensed providers but frequently take care of our children while their parents are at work and could benefit from resources that promote development.
The county will be partnering with the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance to offer critical services and resource connections in communities with the most need and continue to explore different and creative ways to collaborate with other organizations to bring high-quality services to this population.
Finally, there are economic and community aspects to the availability of affordable and high-quality services, which impact everyone. As commissioners, we consider high-quality child care to be critical workforce infrastructure that must meet the needs of parents. This is necessary to prevent businesses from losing staff or workers from calling in because they lack reliable care.
It’s also needed to keep young families from moving away, something that often happens right after people get married and then cannot afford to raise a family here, according to state demographic data. Our advisory group will help raise community awareness of this issue because it can be invisible to everyone except parents and employers.
After several studies, we know that similar to housing, market forces make the availability and affordability of quality child care and preschool opportunities difficult in a rural resort economy. When kids enter kindergarten at a disadvantage from their first five years of life, they just can’t catch up to their peers. That achievement gap has to be closed during early childhood if we want our children and our communities to thrive.
Summit County, Aspen, Denver and Telluride all support affordable, high-quality child care and preschool for their youngest residents. In the next several months, we’ll be talking with businesses and community members about addressing the critical needs of early childhood care in Eagle County. Even with the county’s strong contribution — $1.4 million this year — we know there’s more to be done. We invite you to join the conversation. What better investment can a community make than in its children?
Jill Ryan, Kathy Chandler-Henry and Jeanne McQueeney are Eagle County commissioners.