When the children at the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center heard that an important person was coming to visit Tuesday morning, they were excited and full of questions. What does Congressman Beyer do? Will he play with us or have a snack? I explained that he was part of the government and that he helped make the rules. Wow! was the response.
Wow indeed! I am delighted that Congressmen Don Beyer was interested in seeing our early childhood education in action. Founded in 1968 by 20 faith groups in this area concerned about parents leaving children alone in their cars because they couldn’t afford childcare, the Children’s Center serves all children, regardless of the family’s ability to pay. Now 60 percent of the families who enroll their children here are the working poor; many are recent immigration from counties all over the world.
The other 40 percent are families who want their children to experience the socioeconomic and rich cultural diversity of our program. I am proud of our work excellence. Each of our classrooms has three teachers, with 12 – 17 children and every room has at least one teacher who is a native Spanish speaker. The teachers are professionals, continually pursuing more education and training, using an evidenced based curriculum and assessments with fidelity. I pay them well above the national average of $12 an hour for a lead teacher, $9 for an assistant. But it is still not a living wage. Parents trust their precious children every day with these teachers and often pay as much in child care costs as their rent or mortgage payment. But it still is not a living wage.
The Children’s Center Board admires Congressman Beyer’s past service to the Commonwealth. As the former Chair of Jobs for Virginia’s Graduates, he recognizes the importance of providing children with the education needed to be productive employees. He knows of Nobel Prize winning Economic Professor James Heckman’s work: Every dollar invested in early education saves society eight dollars in future cost. Children will have better health and education outcomes, will be less likely to be incarcerated, join gangs or become pregnant as teens. This is particularly true for children living in poverty.
Virginia has elected delegates, congressmen, senators and governors who support early childhood education. President Obama has been vocal about his support. Retired military officers formed an advocacy group, Mission Readiness, because they know that some of our young men and women were unable to serve their country and benefit from the training and education that the military offers because they could not pass the entrance test. Congressman Beyer assured our Board members and me that more members of Congress understand the value of high quality education than do not. But so little is actually being done. When Board members and I asked what we could do to help advocate for change, the congressman was not able to give us much encouragement, telling us to just keeping doing what we are doing in this small program that serves 75 children each year. He patiently explained the budget demands: Half goes to entitlements and the debt, one-quarter goes to defense, leaving only one-quarter for everything else. Transportation, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, water and energy – so many other things.
What is the answer? Do we continue to allow the 1 percent to pay fewer taxes than the rest of us? Should large corporations continue to have huge bottom lines while being exempt from many taxes or using loopholes to avoid taxes all together?
There is a story that you may have heard about a tribe in Africa. They are considered fierce warriors and other tribes fear them. But they understand that the future of the tribe depends on the well-being of the children. Only if the children are provided for can the rest to the tribe flourish. So when they greet one another, they do not say “hey” or “what’s up?” They ask, “And how are the children?”
What if our “tribe” truly understood the need to nurture and educate our children? What if we greeted one another with “and how are the children?” What if every meeting, every session of congress opened with that question? What if the President started every press conference by asking about the children? What would the answer be?
I am grateful to Congressman Beyer for taking the time to see our children. I am grateful that he understands the value of early childhood education. And I understand budget struggles. But how long can we delay investing in our most precious resource, our children? How long can we go without a good answer to the question, “and how are the children?”
Elizabeth Page is the executive director of the Falls Church-McLean’s Children’s Center.