Testimony of Ronald Jarrett on Education Oversight

March 9, 2021
Person Testifying: Ronald Jarrett
Title: Director, Under 3 DC Coalition
Testimony Heard By: Committee of the Whole
Type of Hearing: Education Agencies Performance Oversight Hearing - Fiscal Year 2021

Good morning Chairman Mendelson and members of the committee. My name is Ronald Jarrett and I am director of the Under 3 DC Coalition. We are more than 50 organizations committed to securing a strong start for every infant and toddler in DC. My testimony today will focus on the importance of fully funding and supporting the early childhood education sector, which directly impacts human development, the economic security of District families, the success of District businesses, and the overall strength and vitality of our city.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated the child care sector not only in the District but across the entire country, has exposed the quicksand on which our current early childhood system is built. Last fall, OSSE announced a change from enrollment based payments to attendance based payments, causing even more instability. A subsequent revision that provided a 32% higher rate per child – still based on attendance – was helpful, but not enough. To strengthen the stability of a sector that builds the brains of our youngest residents and allows working parents to work, we need to demonstrate the wisdom we’ve all gained over the last year by allocating $60 million to early childhood education in FY22. It’s important that these funds be recurring to cauterize equity and respect into the pay we provide early learning professionals who shape the minds of our infants and toddlers and ultimately, our city’s future.

We Must Fully Fund the Birth to Three DC Act

Countless studies have demonstrated that the first three years of life are when the most important brain development happens. This fact has been proven. It is not arguable. Why then do we as a society not prioritize support for the programs that we already know have a positive lifelong impact on our youngest learners? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to ensure that those we will soon look to lead us, receive the absolute best care and education possible, as early as possible? Given our need to justly and equitably recover our economy, shouldn’t we prioritize ensuring working parents can work?

The Birth to Three DC Act, which you passed in 2018, seeks to do just that. However, without the funding to implement every single element of the legislation, we are cheating our babies and toddlers out of the opportunities they deserve to grow and thrive.

Research shows that differences in brain development appear as early as nine months old.  Much of the learning gap that exists before kindergarten persists throughout childhood.  Economists tell us that investment in quality early programs for children at risk generates benefits that exceed their costs.

Even before the pandemic, demand for quality early childhood programs exceeded supply by up to 28,000 slots. Even when child care is available, it often is not accessible. The average cost of infant and toddler care is $2,020 a month. The District has the most expensive child care in the United States, and far greater than what most DC families can afford. This is why the child care subsidy is so critical to supporting our children and families.

We Must Provide Robust Financial Resources for Child Care Businesses

While the District’s Child Care Relief Fund reached most licensed early learning programs, child care relief funding to date has not been sufficient to meet the needs of this essential sector. In a recent survey of DC child care programs, programs reported that cumulative relief funds to date – District dollars, PPP loans, and other federal or private sources of funding – covered only 35% of their costs, with many sharing concerns that their business may not remain viable for much longer without additional urgent aid.

At the onset of the pandemic in March last year, our coalition members estimated the child care sector – those who participate in the subsidy program as well those who rely in whole or in part on private tuition – would need an additional $5.6 million per month, at a minimum, to weather the storm of closures, loss of tution, lowered enrollment and attendance, new PPE costs, and altered staffing ratios.  To date, the District has only met the equivalent of only two months of relief needs with emergency grants run through DMPED and OSSE. A lack of further aid would greatly exacerbate the existing early education shortage crisis, making it impossible for many parents to return to work.

Every business sector in the District relies on child care, which is in itself a business sector. It is the work that makes all other work possible. Yet, our minimal investment in the sector means early learning programs are teetering on the brink of collapse. If we’re moving mountains to support hotels, restaurants, and retail, then we should be moving heaven and earth to save the child care businesses that make other jobs possible.

The law firm of Hogan Lovells made this statement about the impact of the early education system on work:

“We understand the importance of high-quality child care and have made it a priority to support parents and caretakers. One of the benefits provided by Hogan Lovells is backup child care. Through our Backup Childcare Advantage Program, Hogan Lovells provides up to 100 hours/year, at a subsidized rate, of in-home or center-based services for dependents (children, spouse/partner, and parents). Early childhood education has a myriad of benefits, including overall improvement in cognitive abilities, but also critical behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem. Investments in early childhood education have proven effective in cultivating future workforces, securing long-term economic competitiveness and developing our future leaders. For HL parents, early childhood education programs not only provide a strong foundation for their children but also give our parents the ability to advance in their respective roles while knowing their children are safe and well cared for. This is particularly important for our working mothers who often have a disproportionate amount of responsibility surrounding children and household duties.  The support and advancement of our people are critical to our overall priority of creating an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive.”

Business leaders recognize that a first-class early childhood education program lays the foundation for our children to learn social and communications skills, basic math and reading concepts as well as critical interpersonal skills and understanding different roles others may play in their lives. In addition, a well-rounded program prioritizes the health and safety of our children. Knowing that our children are safe and cared for is an important component of emotional and mental wellbeing of our working parents.

Both the national and DC chambers of commerce warn of continued economic stagnation if workers cannot return to work because of a lack of child care. DMPED, OSSE, the Administration, and the Council must all work together to find more ways to urgently support safe, stable, quality child care programs. Working families are also counting on the city to make sure our recovery builds back with a more equitable and affordable early childhood education system.

We Must Consistently Acknowledge that Early Childhood Educators ARE Educators

It is imperative that we affirm and lift up the truth that early childhood educators are educators. Early childhood educators play as important a role in the development of our children as PK-12 and post-secondary educators. Early childhood educators are the ones working with our children during the most critical time in human development.

Yet, these educators have historically been undervalued, underpaid, and underestimated. The vast majority of child care center owners and workers are women, primarily women of color. The average wage for DC early educators is $16.41/hour with minimal benefits, which is far below a livable wage. These low wages prevent educators from providing the reliable, quality care that will prepare children to succeed.

That early childhood educators were left off the District’s COVID-19 vaccine priority list exemplified the ways District leadership and education systems discriminate against early learning as second tier. It was a disappointing and disrespectful act. Not only are these early learning professionals equally important educators as PK-12 teachers and staff, but many early educators have consistently been working on the front lines throughout the pandemic. They have been working in person with children every day while public schools have been closed. Early educators have already had to risk their own health and well-being and that of their families in order to keep child care centers and homes open for working parents including essential workers.

Early childhood educators are our teachers during the most crucial three years of human learning. While we and our children may not remember the generous and caring individuals who were–in addition to parents–the first teachers, the human brain remembers. The very growth and development of our brains is entrusted to these individuals. It is incumbent on us to provide the resources, respect, and recognition that they deserve for the critical role they play in our early lives. That is why the Mayor and Council must advance the mission of the Birth-to-Three for All DC Law and raise pay of early educators to achieve parity with their peers in DC public schools. OSSE has continued to fail on delivering the compensation study and we need that to move the Birth-to-Three law forward. The Under 3 DC Coalition is asking for a recurring $60 million enhancement to the District’s child care subsidy program so that, in part, the path to pay parity can begin to be implemented in FY22.