Opinion: State Cuts to Early Childhood Efforts Would Affect Generations to Come
By: Mindy Binderman for Atlanta Journal Constitution
Sometimes a newspaper headline catches your eye, but not necessarily for the right reasons. This was the case when I saw a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution headline about the cuts contained within Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget currently being debated in the General Assembly.
The headline in the print edition read, “Georgians unlikely to feel many cuts.”
That was news to the bipartisan group of state lawmakers who are hearing from a stream of witnesses describing the real-world impacts cuts to things like critical child welfare, public health, and mental health services will have on the lives Georgians. And our youngest residents and their families will also feel the effects if these cuts make their way into the final budget agreement.
For example, critical early education programs face funding reductions, including a $2.3 million cut from this year’s amended budget for an ongoing early language and literacy pilot program. In addition, there’s a $500,000 reduction for the Childcare and Parent Services (CAPS), both in this year’s and next year’s spending plan, which provides scholarships to help some low-income families with the cost of child care.
While these reductions may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to size of the budget, these reductions will have extensive ripple effects for years to come.
Research shows the first 2,000 days of a child’s life, from the time they are born to when they enter kindergarten, are when the most rapid brain development occurs. It’s a time when one million synapses are created every second and the basic architecture of the brain is formed, when critically important life skills such as concentration and impulse control are developed. Investments made in these early days are enormously beneficial, not just today, but decades into the future. Research has shown that high-quality childhood programs improve graduation rates, future employment opportunities, and health outcomes.
The proposed cuts to CAPS come when we should be expanding the program’s reach, not shrinking it, as the cost of raising children eats up more and more of the average Georgia family’s budget. Any parent or caregiver reading this knows how expensive it can be, and in low-income households, the cost of high-quality child care can take upwards of 40% of the family budget. Limited funding means that Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning has not been able to enroll all eligible families, with only an estimated 14.8% of income-eligible, working families served by CAPS.
By ensuring more Georgians have access to high-quality early care and education, we can improve our children’s school readiness, social-emotional development, and help parents and caregivers better navigate the workplace. GEEARS has proposed expanding the income limit and increase the CAPS budget by $20 million to serve 3,000 new infants and toddlers. At a time when we should be expanding this important program, these cuts would move us in the wrong direction at the wrong time.
The same goes for the elimination of millions in funding for early literacy. Studies have found a clear link between reading proficiency and higher graduation rates. As of 2015, 66.6% of Georgia’s third graders were not reading at grade level. That number fell to 58% in 2019, thanks in part to programs the state has launched to improve early education.
One such program is the Lifting Infants and Toddlers Through Language-Rich Environments (LITTLE) program, which the Department of Early Care and Learning launched in 2017 through funding from the early language and literacy pilot program. Grants from Project LITTLE have helped teachers at early childhood education centers to improve the skills they need to foster early literacy skills among toddlers and infants.
In its first years of implementation, Project LITTLE has helped improve interactions between teachers and the children in classrooms. The progress Georgia’s teachers are making to increase literacy rates will be stifled if innovative programs like this are eliminated.
We recently conducted focus groups with Georgia parents to better understand the challenges they face around child care and early education. Not surprisingly, they had much to share, especially when it came to what they think policymakers should do to support families.
“There is no better way to invest in the long-term health and future of this state than in our young kids,” one Atlanta father told us recently. “Creating environments for them to thrive, both with family and their larger communities, is critical to building a foundation for them to succeed as they grow and become productive members of society.”
We couldn’t agree more.