Addressing a national crisis with a community response

Addressing a national crisis with a community response

By Chris Hansen, CEO of Child Care of Southwest Florida

Florida, and the nation for that matter, is facing a crisis in early childhood education.

The challenge is not that early learning programs are ineffective or that parents don’t believe programs will benefit their children. It’s that families simply cannot afford it.

In Florida, the average annual cost for infant care is $9,238. For 4 year olds, it’s $7,282. For many families, enrolling their children in an early learning program is not feasible from a financial standpoint. That’s only furthering the achievement gap that shows a strong correlation between household income and academic success.

Sadly, not every child in Southwest Florida has the same educational opportunity to participate in an early learning program. Based on financial guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 13.2% of Florida families can afford infant care.

Low-income families often are left with two options: enroll their children in an early learning program and fall further into debt, or keep their children at home and hope they don’t fall too far behind their peers once they enroll in kindergarten. That is unacceptable.

Early childhood education providers are also feeling the pressure. During the pandemic, the federal government provided funding that kept dozens of centers in Southwest Florida operational, but that program ended last fall. Quality early learning programs are expensive; it takes money to pay for credentialed teachers, academic materials and a safe learning environment, but centers cannot pass those costs along to families that do not have the means to pay for it.

As a nonprofit with five local early learning centers, our team at Child Care of Southwest Florida witnesses the struggles of families daily. Reliable child care is often the glue that holds low-income families together. Without it, children cannot learn and parents cannot work. That’s why Child Care of Southwest Florida provides numerous resources, including scholarships, to help bridge the gap.

These scholarships can change lives. Because of the support of local businesses, organizations and individuals, and generous contributions of United Way, Child Care of Southwest Florida’s scholarship program provides tuition assistance that covers fees for families that need it most. Last year alone, the organization provided financial assistance for 100 children in Lee and Hendry counties, with partial and full scholarships totaling approximately $129,000.

When these programs aren’t affordable, parents face the heartbreaking choice between paying for tuition or quitting their jobs to stay home. It’s a no-win situation that costs everyone.

In fact, an early childhood education provides taxpayers with returns of 7-10% per year for every dollar invested due to future reduced costs in remedial education, health, criminal justice system expenditures and the tax revenues generated from increased earnings.

The early learning advantages of a high-quality program are crucial in preparing children with the academic and social skills they need to thrive. Without it, they are:

  • 25% more likely to drop out of school.
  • 40% more likely to become a teen parent.
  • 50% more likely to be placed in special education.
  • 60% more likely to never attend college.
  • 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

These statistics highlight the importance of our mission at Child Care of Southwest Florida, which is to empower and prepare young minds for the future during their most formative years. Access to quality early learning ensures that even the most disadvantaged children can succeed in school and life.

Community investment in early childhood education yields significant benefits. Businesses that support quality programs see more stable employment among their staff, as parents are able to stay in their jobs and maintain financial stability. This, in turn, boosts the local economy.

Children from low-income families are reported to have academic proficiency rates that are 50% lower than their peers, often struggling through school and life. Investing in quality early learning can break the cycle of generational poverty, allowing parents to pursue education and stable employment, paving the way for a brighter future for their children.

At our nonprofit early learning centers, we know how impactful scholarships can be for the families we serve. These are not handouts. Rather, they are a means to support the parents we see working hard to improve their situations. Parents must be either working or attending school, and many are doing both – working full- or part-time while earning a high school diploma, vocational certificate or college degree. With a little help, these parents can lift themselves out of tough economic situations.

Let’s invest in our children, strengthen our families and build a stronger, more resilient community. Child Care of Southwest Florida is ready to collaborate with businesses, organizations and others in the community on solutions to expand access to quality early learning programs. We also coordinate the Florida Child Care Mandated Training and Competency Exams in the five-county region, ensuring centers are well-equipped to offer quality care.

Together, we can make a difference. Every child deserves to thrive.

To learn more about sponsorships and opportunities at Child Care of Southwest Florida, visit CCSWFL.org or call 239-278-1002.

About the Author

Chris HansenChris Hansen is CEO of Child Care of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit childhood education provider that serves more than 350 students from 6 weeks to 8 years old across five early learning centers in Lee and Hendry counties. Visit CCSWFL.org for more information.