18 September 2012

What can the Chicago strike teach us about child care ?

By: E. Tammy Kim

The need for public child care has emerged as a central, if unintended, lesson of the Chicago teachers’ strike. As the work stoppage enters a second week, the families of some 350,000 mostly low-income, Black and Latino students are struggling to find safe, quality child care—but the call for a reliable, publicly-funded system should be universal.

While the Chicago school district has offered no-cost, “contingency plan” child care at 147 schools and 200 community- and faith-based locations, most staff are not trained providers and afterschool care is not available. Still, the city’s offering points in the right direction. Imagine if all families could access publicly-funded daycare centers or in-home child care, just as they can public schools. Individual children would grow in a safe, productive environment, staffed by professional providers, and working parents, especially those with irregular schedules and lower-income jobs, would have one less worry. These economic and social benefits would redound, moreover, to society at large.

Urban Vineyard in Humboldt Park, one of Chicago’s publicly-funded centers, offers a portrait of quality child care. During the strike, the program has served an average of 40 children per day, mostly from first-generation Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Puerto Rican families. According to the director, Pastor Myrna Nodal, "Most people equate child care with babysitting, but we have trained staff that provides fitness, arts and crafts, music, and socialization."

Nodal’s comment underscores the overlap between child care and childhood education. Both concern safety and trust as much as cognitive, emotional, and physical development. And both should be accessible to families across the class divide.

It’s a matter of seeing child care as a social investment rather than an expense to be borne by families alone. Among advanced, industrialized nations, where universal child care and early education (pre-K) are the norm, the U.S. invests the least public money in this sector—only .5 percent of our GDP. Research shows, unequivocally, that this policy is short-sighted and unsustainable. Access to public child care would mean more flexibility and earnings for working families, safer and more productive children, and a good-jobs sector for providers and early educators.

In the midst of the public-education debate spurred by the Chicago strike, we should re-evaluate our commitment to families and prioritize access to publicly-funded, quality child care. How we care for our children, rich and poor, during and after school, will determine the future we share.

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