A few weeks ago, I celebrated my birthday and my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter sang “Happy Birthday” to me…in English and then in Spanish. As she belted out “cumpleaños feliz,” I was reminded that one of my greatest gifts is the opportunity to watch her learn and grow. It is a gift to see and support her language acquisition, to watch her be able to distinguish between an oval and a circle, to see her hold a writing utensil correctly, to watch her put her socks and shoes on by herself, to see her dance to a beat, and to see her understand the difference between an inside and an outside voice. It is also a gift to know that she is learning these skills and much more primarily during the almost 50 hours a week she spends in a five-star rated early childhood education center. These early years are the most important times in children’s development and our investments in them are an investment in our society. But are we really lying to ourselves and our earliest learners?
What if our claims that our babies and toddlers are important to us as a society are more aspiration than actuality? What if behind Delaware’s chubby cheek-pinching and cute baby cooing is a penchant for ruthless prioritization that leaves our earliest learners behind? Last week’s early childhood funding announcement—the latest kick in the gut to a profession perennially pleading for deeper investment—is a reminder that concern for our earliest learners is more fib than fact.
Last week, the Governor’s Office and the Delaware Department of Education sent confirmation to early childhood education providers that, given the state’s $400 million budget shortfall this year, “there is not enough funding to expand Stars and tiered reimbursement in the 2018 fiscal year.” This is one of the “shared sacrifices” Delaware students were required to make at the end of a fierce budget battle in the legislature. The email added that:
“For Fiscal Year 2018, no new program applications will be accepted. The state will continue supporting all programs at their current levels with tiered reimbursement; all current Delaware Stars participants at Star Levels 2, 3 and 4 will be held at their current level.”
In simple terms, this means that while early childhood programs used to be able to receive more money from the state by improving their program quality (and thus moving up Star levels) this is no longer possible. Programs will continue to receive funds to support their current Star level (removing the state incentive and push to improve quality) and programs that wanted to join the Stars program will not be able to do so.
This means that early childhood centers like the one at Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington—which has worked hard to move up a Star level by providing better care for early learners and receive increased state funding to ensure their center’s economic viability—have been deprived of a vital opportunity.
This means many early childhood centers that operate with the thinnest of margins (almost all do) will lose thousands of dollars per year in potential revenue. Their inability to benefit from an increased reimbursement by moving from Star level 3 to 4, for example, can mean the difference between receiving an annual reimbursement of $1,300 per child and $2,500 per child.
This means the state is backsliding on its “nation-leading work” and its 10-year state commitment and public/private partnership devoted to improving the quality of early learning.
Ultimately, this disinvestment means more of our earliest learners will not have access to the high-quality education they deserve and we will continue to see the impact of this in our 3rd-grade reading levels and high school readiness.
It also means that Delaware has been lying to its babies and toddlers.
Our state is lying to our babies and toddlers when it tells them they are of the highest importance to us—but then it makes decisions that undercut their early development.
Delaware is lying to our babies and toddlers when it teaches them it’s important to share—then cannot find the $4 million needed to support our earliest learners from a budget of $4 billion.
We are lying to them when we teach them about fairness only to allow low-income early learners to be exposed to 30 million fewer words by age three, only to pay the educators who work long hours with our babies close to minimum wage and to be comfortable with only “seven percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-sponsored pre-K.”
One of the things I quickly learned in my first few years as a parent is not to lie to my kid. I am not referring to the “there is a tooth fairy” or “Santa Claus is real” type of lies. I am talking about the everyday instances when my child asks for something I do not intend to give her and my inclination is to flippantly tell her she will get it later. Adults make promises big and small on a regular basis that we never plan to keep. We say empty words such as “later” or “tomorrow” that a child in all their purity will esteem with the expectation that we will deliver. Our babies and toddlers never expect that we are lying to them and they always expect us to follow through.
Right now, we are not delivering on our promise to Delaware’s earliest learners. We only need to decide now if we want to make things right or continue deceiving ourselves.