What a perfect prelude to a three-day orientation to the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant that Maryland Family Network was awarded recently: a visit with my 17-month old grandson! Playing in the yard with water, running through the trees at the arboretum, and exploring the properties of sand at the beach were a lot more fun than sitting in windowless hotel rooms listening to trainers!
This orientation event in Chicago has some benefits for me, most related to my colleagues. In addition to reconnecting with a few friends from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), I enjoyed the quality time with the other three MFNers here, discussing plans and perceived implementation barriers, laughing, thinking about working with new partners. We appreciate the companionship of two stakeholders from MSDE on whom we rely for financial and programmatic support. We love their candor, willingness to make this endeavor a success, their knowledge and thoughtful deliberations, and their camaraderie as we endure talking heads who seem to be addressing audience members less experienced than the Maryland contingent. One representative from each of two other Maryland nonprofits that have been awarded EHS-CC grants is here, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to learn about their projects.
I am struck by the abundance at this conference of all things fed: staff from the national and regional levels and their consultants ( I count 93 names, not including people working at registration,as room proctors, and speakers — the top brass who welcomed us and took questions and answers at a noon panel session); enormous piles of materials for participants including DVDs, spiral notebooks, text books, pamphlets, posters, reams of shrink-wrapped paper – program guidance—and swag like flashlight keychains and baby medicine spoons and sticky pads; and numerous sessions (I counted 30, not including plenaries, “homerooms,” and peer group meetings). What a staggering amount of effort went into this undertaking – and this was repeated for four other groups of HHS regions! And no food was provided at any time, not even a cup of coffee.
For me there are three big take-away’s from this conference for HHS Regions III and V.
- EHS-Child Care Partnership is a great opportunity for MFN. We should design this project and work to implement it in the best way possible for infants and toddlers and their families, pushing for waivers when appropriate and asking for more money if necessary. This is a very important pilot project for the Administration and those at HHS who are committed to high quality early care and education. This elaborate orientation event is an outgrowth of federal fervor. The leaders profess to want to find ways to solve implementation problems, no matter what kind of flexibility it will take. They seem to want desperately to make these very difficult projects work well for families and children (although, we were assured, there was a limit to the amount of money that would be available). They see EHS-CC partnerships – this round will serve approximately 30,000 children – as an effort to combine the best of Early Head Start, the Child Care Subsidy Program, and private child care. This is a first step in the quest for universally accessible, affordable, quality care for very young children.
- We have a long way to go. Early Head Start and Head Start serve 5% of eligible children in this country. The Child Care Subsidy Program serves 16%. If we were to combine all the federal early care and education resources available for children from birth to 60 months, including home visiting, thereby eliminating the mind-boggling amounts of administrative costs and duplicative activities (like eligibility determinations at the federal, state, and local levels), and if we were to grant each state a flat amount per child based on population, high standards of care (delivered in a diverse system so parents had choices), and projected up-take by families, we wouldn’t have nearly enough resources to satisfy the demand. We don’t have the answer to the question: how can we – government and citizens – afford quality child care for everyone who needs and wants it? It’s the question posed by many of the thousands of parents MFN assists each year through LOCATE: Child Care. It’s our number one complaint: we can’t afford quality care.
- We’ll get there. Of course we will. Not soon enough for my colleagues at MFN, at MSDE, in our HHS region, and around the country, but we’re on the way. The research from the fields of neuroscience and economics is with us; the academic, business, and medical communities are getting on board along with politicians of all stripes; and, most importantly, parents are realizing that the early years are not just about babysitting while they work. Increasingly aware and informed, mothers and fathers and others who adore children (like grandparents), know that the first years last forever. At the beginning of their careers, with little or no disposable income and precious little time for advocacy, parents of little ones want the very best for their children, know it’s very hard to find, and, if found, pretty much unaffordable. They need and want the help of the rest of us. We’ll all step up eventually.