Child care challenge White House summit: Issues of quality, cost and availability deserve top-level attention.

October 31, 1997

THE CHILD-CARE dilemma is often written off as a problem for working parents, which lets everyone else off the hook. But as any first-grade teacher can testify, the quality of care in the pre-school years makes a huge difference in a child's prospects for success in school. For that reason alone, the issue is worth the attention of the presidential bully pulpit.

But as important as it was that President and Mrs. Clinton convened a White House conference on child care last week, we'll know we are really making progress when school superintendents or even university presidents convene such gatherings to highlight the fact that these early years are crucial learning years -- and that the academic training of child care workers is as important as the training of any other teacher.

The child care crisis is more than a babysitting shortage, but too often discussions of the issue dwell more on the availability and cost of care than on its quality. Child-care providers are teachers, whether they intend to be or not. New research on the developing brain shows that the earliest years of a person's life are also the period of the most intense learning.

The sound of a care-giver's language, her diction, grammar, pronunciation -- toddlers are soaking it all up. Equally important, they are keenly attuned to their care-givers' tone of voice and emotional signals. Young children need adults who are stable, ,, loving, nurturing and consistent in their discipline.

They also need someone who notices and cares that they learn to speak, to get along with their friends, to solve simple puzzles or other problems and to immerse themselves in the joy of play. When parents and policy makers acknowledge that the people taking care of young children are also teaching them some of the most important lessons of their lives, the issue of quality child care will get the kind of attention it deserves.

The scholarship fund President Clinton is proposing for child care workers is one concrete way of helping that effort, especially if the focus is on academic preparation and not just techniques of managing children.

Availability and affordability of quality care remain vexing, but it seems certain that until child care providers are viewed as professionals, low pay, high turnover and low quality care will continue to hamper the child care industry and, more important, the education prospects of American children.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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