Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Access to early childhood education is not a colorblind issue, and we cannot achieve equity in early education if we do not think about the ways race affects our child care systems. Black families face more barriers to quality child care compared with white families, and a workforce consisting largely of women of color is one of the lowest paid groups nationwide. The Covid pandemic exacerbated existing racial gaps in child care access, but the issues existed long before it. If we want equitable early education, we need to understand how race shapes child care and work to imagine a system that values Black experiences, especially at this pivotal stage in childhood development.

Race plays a significant role in a family’s ability to access early childhood education. Data from the Department of Labor found the median cost of child care in Middlesex county was over $26,000 per year. Taking the impact of race on wealth and wages into account, Black families are more likely to struggle with these high costs. While subsidies exist to help increase access, a recent report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation found that they often fail to reach eligible families, either due to allocation issues or inaccessible applications.

Additionally, many low-wage workers, more often Black or Latino than white, work later shifts, creating schedules that are incompatible with available child care programs.

It’s not just the families involved in child care but our child care providers themselves who most often feel the impact of race and racism in early education. The work of early childhood education has historically fallen to Black women. While early child care was and continues to be pivotal in allowing parents, especially women, to enter the workforce, the field remains critically underfunded, paying a workforce of Black and Latina women some of the lowest wages of any group in almost every state. Inadequate wages for early educators create retention challenges, leading to high turnover, position vacancies and fewer available classroom seats. The existing affordability crisis for child care was exacerbated by the departure of many teachers from the field after the Covid pandemic. For federal programs such as Head Start, which often serve Black and Latino families, the funding shortage makes teacher retention especially difficult; wages for Head Start teachers lag behind that of private-classroom counterparts.

Ultimately, to improve the quality of education, we also need to bring conversations and awareness about race into the classroom. By the time they enter preschool, children are building their understandings around race. Educators of color in the classroom create the opportunity for children to see people of color in leadership roles. Racially diverse classrooms give students opportunities to connect with people outside their own race. For Black children, the benefits of racially diverse classrooms can be even more significant. Having Black teachers improves teacher-child relationships, leading to more caregiver attachment and better educational outcomes. Black teachers are more likely to rate Black students as having higher persistence and identify Black students for gifted programs, closing gaps that exist when Black students are taught by white teachers. All of these early experiences set Black children up to achieve more educational success and seek higher educational attainment later in life.

How do we build a system that creates more equitable access to early education, ensures diverse learning environments for our children and treats our early educators fairly?

  • Increase funding for early education. This action would have the most significant impact on our child care system. More funding for teacher salaries, especially for programs such as Head Start, needs to be a priority for our legislators if they want to create more equitable child care systems. Higher teacher pay would also mean more teachers in classrooms, creating seats for more children.
  • Reduce the burden on families applying for state and federal assistance. The process of applying for public assistance can be difficult and cumbersome. Streamlining processes could mean counting eligibility for one assistance program as eligibility for others. Improving interagency collaboration could reduce the administrative burden on parents significantly.
  • Encourage curriculum that teaches students about race. Preschool is one of the most important times in a child’s life for shaping their view of themselves, their peers and their world. Curriculum that includes lessons around race and encourages self-acceptance and acceptance toward others will help prepare students for an increasingly diverse world.

Alex Barbat, Community Action Agency of Somerville


Alex Barbat is communications manager at The Community Action Agency of Somerville, a federally designated anti-poverty agency serving Somerville since 1981.