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What Does It Mean to Invest in Early Education in Alaska?
One way is through improving the quality of child care through the early care and education workforce.
“A colleague once said to me, ‘we don’t start building a pipeline at mile 5, we start at 0’,” says Stephanie Berglund, the CEO of thread, Alaska’s Child Care Resource & Referral Network. “The same can be said for our children; we should be investing more starting at birth and earlier in their care and education.”
It is during a child’s youngest years, from birth to 3 years old, when what and how children are learning can shape their future. Increasingly, studies are showing when young children experience positive early care and education at home or in child care, they are more ready for school, have higher wages when they get jobs, are healthier and stay out of jail. These benefits not only impact individuals, they help reduce the costs we all pay for things like juvenile justice programs and health care.
There is a link between early learning and quality child care because of today’s economy and more working families than fifty years ago.
“The reality of our work force is that over 60 percent of households with children have all of the adults in their homes working,” Berglund said. “Child care is becoming a necessity for many working families.”
While Berglund admits “quality” child care is not well defined in Alaska, most early education professionals agree the level of training and education of a child care provider is one of the strongest indicators of quality care.
7,300 early educators make up the early care and education workforce in Alaska. The workforce includes people working at licensed child care centers, licensed family child care homes and group homes, Head Start, private and public preschools and pre-kindergarten, infant learning programs and other early childhood settings.
While many early educators are caring for Alaska’s children, their wages are equal to some of the lowest paying jobs in the economy, with the average monthly wage of an individual in this field being $1,494. This compares to $3,886 which is the overall average monthly wage in Alaska (the Department of Labor and Economic Development, 2009).
“It’s a struggle for early educators wanting to advance in their field with no promise of higher salaries as they gain more education and training, which we know leads to better quality child care,” Berglund describes.
thread supports early educators’ professional development in different ways including financial awards or mini grants to improve their program environments to travel reimbursements for attending trainings.
thread is also exploring how to fill the wage gap for early educators through a financial award and recognition program based on the Alaska System for Early Education Development (SEED) and the SEED Registry. The SEED Registry is both a tool for early educators to document their professional achievements and a database that can inform decision-makers about the status of the early childhood workforce.
“The SEED Registry is a common system for all early care and learning professionals and it helps show us where early educators land on a career ladder that represents different levels of training and education,” says Panu Lacier, a program director at thread. “By increasing early educators’ wages by even a dollar, we know this can help recruit and retain professionals in the early childhood field.
“Investing more in professional development opportunities along with providing a livable wage for the early care and education workforce will lay the groundwork for increasing the quality of child care in Alaska,” Berglund added.
Alaska residents are on board with investing more dollars in early education. The McDowell Group study says urban and rural residents alike think public funding for early care and learning in Alaska is important, with 87 percent of households supporting state government to provide financial support for these services.
“We know there is a huge gap in the well-being of children between states that have made additional public investments in early education and those that have not,” Berglund says. “Research shows that when states have made significant investments in early care and education services, children are more likely to be healthy, graduate from high school and be successful later in life.
“Knowing this, why wouldn’t we start building Alaska’s future leaders from birth, just like we would build a pipeline at mile zero,” Berglund adds.
 2011 Economic Impact of Early Care & Learning Services in Alaska, The McDowell Group.
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