by Erin Okuno, Tony To, Estela Ortega
We have a rare opening in King County, with the advent of the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account, to take substantive concrete action to close the opportunity gap. Over the next year, the King County Council and King County Executive will be deciding how to spend approximately $315 million on education from 2019 to 2035. There are many ways to spend the money, but if we are serious about closing the opportunity gap, a substantial majority should be directed to the renovation and construction of early learning facilities.
There is no argument: kids that start school behind, stay behind.
If we can address the disparities by race and income that emerge in the first years of life, we can change the trajectory of the lives of children and their families to greater success and prosperity. It is important to keep working to close those gaps throughout the K-12 system, and organizations that provide expanded learning opportunities are stressed for program space as well. This issue spans the education system – we know that lack of childcare is also a barrier to postsecondary success.
As our region struggles with affordability, parents of young children will tell you that second only to housing, their largest household expense is child care and/or preschool. The shortage of high-quality, affordable infant care is a particular stressor for families welcoming new babies in King County. Finding an infant child care spot when parents return to work is largely a feat of luck, rather than a choice of high-quality options. Our early learning systems are still based on a 1960s economy, not the realities of working families in the United States today. In King County, the median cost for center-based care for infants is 23% of the state’s median household income and waiting lists abound.
At the same time, early learning and youth development programs are being squeezed out of schools working to reduce K-3 class sizes. These pressures collide with early learning programs trying to expand hours to meet both parent needs and state and federal requirements, reducing space even further as classrooms that used to provide a morning and afternoon space are serving half the kids in the same space with all-day programming. In the Southeast Seattle region, we are also fighting to keep families in place and slow-down displacement and gentrification.
While we have a way to go, we are getting better at recognizing the importance of the early years and putting funding towards operating programs like the Seattle Preschool Program and our state Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. We need to continue the push for public operating funds for child care and preschool that span birth to five. But we cannot forget that programs need space in which to operate.
We can address this problem by being innovative, creating new partnerships, and listening to families of color about what they need. Organizations focused on early learning and youth development are partnering with affordable housing and development entities to identify ways to leverage resources and meet families’ needs. At the same time, we can be thoughtful about preserving spaces that value and cultivate cultural identity, as we’ve done at El Centro de la Raza, by supporting families from the beginning. It’s not flashy or sexy, but investing in facilities infrastructure is necessary for the long-term future and a timely, key component of closing the opportunity gap.
Make it one of your New Year’s Resolutions: Contact your King County Councilmembers (206-477-1000) and urge them to prioritize capital investments for Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account funding. Not sure who your Councilmember is? You can look it up by your address here.
Erin Okuno is the Executive Director of the South Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a coalition of Community Based Organizations (CBOs), schools, educators, community leaders, parents and caregivers, and concerned SE Seattle residents working to improve education for all children, especially those in SE Seattle and those further away from opportunities.
Tony To is the Executive Director of Homesight, an organization in South Seattle providing opportunities for homeownership through mortgage lending and purchase assistance, developing real estate with an emphasis on affordability, and strengthening neighborhoods through community-driven projects that build shared prosperity and preserve character.
Estela Ortega is the Executive Director of El Centro de la Raza, an organization grounded in the Latino community. Its mission is to build unity across all racial and economic sectors, to organize, empower, and defend our most vulnerable and marginalized populations and to bring justice, dignity, equality, and freedom to all the peoples of the world.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Joe Wolf