GUEST OPINION: Finding solutions for lack of child care in county

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part in a series of columns from the Brown County Community Foundation Chief Executive Officer Maddison Miller about the issues of affordable child care and how they can be addressed locally.

By MADDISON MILLER, guest columnist

In my last article, I discussed the economic impacts related to the lack of high quality child care and early education programs.

The economic impact of child care matters because it helps drive local economies. As data demonstrates, when parents can access child care they are more likely to enter the workforce, stay employed or seek additional education or job training. Child care is a work support for parents, but it also enables children to be in a setting that promotes their healthy development and school readiness.

Child care not only has a direct impact on the economy today, but also impacts the economy of tomorrow, building a solid foundation for the next generation to develop in mind, body and character, so they can succeed at whatever career path they choose.

Two studies released last month by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration show children who participated in On My Way Pre-K (OMWPK) are better prepared for school and that the benefits continue well into elementary school. OMWPK awards grants to 4-year-olds from low-income families so that they have access to a high-quality preschool program the year before they begin kindergarten.

The first multi-year longitudinal study demonstrates that children who attend preschool have stronger school readiness, language and literacy skills than peers with similar family incomes who attend lower quality programs. The study was conducted by Purdue University researchers from the Center for Early Learning and revealed that the pattern of OMWPK children outperforming their peers continued through third and fourth grades, as measured in standardized math and English/language arts scores.

According to Gov. Eric Holcomb, “The studies show that Indiana’s investment in high-quality early education for the children of lower-income families is helping our youngest learners achieve at their greatest potential for years to come. Giving children a good start on their education pathway delivers a more well-prepared student and ultimately a ready to go workforce, both key elements to our state’s future growth and opportunity.”

Unfortunately, funding for the state’s OMWPK program is limited, serving only 3,517 children across the state with only five in Brown County. Indiana trails most other states when it comes to public preschool and there are an estimated 27,000 4-year-olds across Indiana who are eligible for the OMPWK program. That does not account for more than 323,000 other Hoosier children without state-funded preschool.

While we await fully funded preschool from the state legislature, the Brown County Community Foundation is filling the gap through preschool scholarship programs to the tune of $48,000 per year. However, we often point to a different study when reasoning this expense.

More than 50 years ago, the landmark Perry Preschool Project began as a research study seeking the answer to whether access to high-quality education could have a positive impact on children and the communities where they live.

The longitudinal study found that at age 40, the participants who experienced the preschool program:

Had fewer teenage pregnancies

Were more likely to have graduated from high school

Were more likely to hold a job

Had higher monthly income and higher lifetime earnings

Committed fewer crimes

Owned their own home and car

Overall, the study documented a return to society of more than $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program. More important than the economic impacts, a large body of research has demonstrated the critical importance of the first three years of a child’s life, when brain development is at its peak. Waiting until children enter preschool or kindergarten to introduce vital learning interventions, particularly around social and emotional cognition, is simply too late.

At BCCF, our scholarship program prioritizes families with lower incomes where children are more likely to be subject to stressful home environments which can have lifelong impacts on learning and self-regulation. High-quality programs, like the preschool rooms across Brown County Schools, help mitigate these effects by offering a safe and stable learning environment which fosters development.

We’ve established that daily exposure to structured education establishes a firm academic foundation that serves children well into adulthood, but here in Indiana just 2% of children attend state-funded preschool. The Congressional Build Back Better Act would expand access to preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, especially in states like Indiana that lack a universal preschool program. The plan would make child care free for low-income families, while capping costs for others at about 7% of household income. This would effectively halve the cost of childcare for many, especially people in Brown County who, on average, pay rates similar to tuition at Indiana University. Yet there’s no assurance this plan will ultimately pass.

Money continues to be a sticking point in increasing preschool access in the Hoosier State. The “expansion” of OMWPK in 2019 meant adding just 500 more seats to accommodate tens of thousands of qualified children. Again, there are only five total seats in Brown County.

Lawmakers continue to be cautious about appropriating the millions of dollars needed to serve more children. Instead, more creative ideas for funding preschool have arisen, such as using revenue from food, beverage or cigarette taxes, or seeking private donations.

As an education stakeholder in Brown County, the community foundation has leveraged grants from organizations like the Lilly Endowment Inc. to support our scholarship program in addition to obtaining funding from Regional Opportunities Initiative to construct the forthcoming Early Childcare Center at the former intermediate school. A project that is important because, regardless of available tuition funding, there simply aren’t enough providers to accommodate our children.

The local Birth to Five Coalition is actively investigating potential funding streams to support the ongoing sustainability of the new center, because rural communities like ours are not receiving federal or state funding at the necessary levels. As a community we must be innovative in our approach if we are to address the issue in a comprehensive way.

We are learning important lessons from places like Tell City and the Perry County Economic Development Corporation who have leveraged a network of private funders for their community daycare. We are paying close attention to Appleseed Childhood Education in Japer County who have built strong business partnerships to open a new 70-seat center.

What we do know is this: we face longstanding and considerable funding obstacles to adequately meet the child care and early education needs of Brown County and it is going to take a serious and substantial commitment from the community to effectively expand access for families. But with both the economic and academic advantages in mind, can you imagine a better investment for the future of our community?

Maddison Miller is the chief executive officer of the Brown County Community Foundation. BCCF’s preschool scholarship program ensures every child in Brown County, regardless of their family’s income, has access to high quality early childhood education. In the 2020-2021 school year, they provided funding for 27 children to attend preschool. Annually, BCCF provides around $1 million in grants to support broad areas of community need – education, social services, health care, arts and humanities and environment – to help build a stronger, healthier Brown County.