Mercury News
by: Vien Truong

From the uproar over Yahoo’s new parent-unfriendly telecommuting ban to the President’s State of the Union push, how we care for and educate children in their early years is suddenly a topic of national conversation.

But a national conversation is just that: words. The real laboratory for improving our patchwork early childhood care and education system is in the states. In this, as in so many areas, California was once a leader but now lags behind Alabama, Georgia, and other states we might lose to in football but not usually in the arena of investing in kids.

How has the political culture in the conservative South shifted to embrace progressive policy solutions?

Call it “Capitalists for Preschool.” Many in the business community have joined the chorus to preach to elected leaders that just like our roads, schools and the electrical grid, child care and early education are a crucial part of our economic infrastructure. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bleeding heart outfit, even put out a white paper to call for deep investment.

With good reason. Here’s the reality for California parenting:

A bus driver lacks affordable options when she is scheduled to work night shifts. Faced with the fear of losing the job she needs to keep food on the table, she does what she has to do: her second-grader rides the bus with her all night.

A Silicon Valley telecom small business owner calculates the total average time his employees arrive late, leave early or are absent due to child care emergencies. The productivity lost is equivalent to a week and a half annually for a full-time employee.

The people who most bear witness to these stories are preschool and child care providers. They see this toe-hold on jobs and independence and an eroding bottom line and profit and are trying to fix it. Not only are they the professionals who make all of California’s professions possible; they’re responsible for the early educational development that directly correlates to success in K-12, college, or worker training.

A new alliance of providers, parents and forward-thinking employers is emerging to press Sacramento for the policy solutions that have worked for our neighbors in Oregon, Washington and other states. Today over 300,000 children in California sit on a wait list, the tip of the iceberg in terms of need. Their parents are eligible for assistance with the cost of care but can’t get it. Child care for one infant represents 42.9 percent of the average single mother’s earnings here, an obstacle that is almost insurmountable.]

Lack of reliable, affordable child care is the number one source of absenteeism and workforce dropout among women. With a rapidly aging population, we are not going to continue growing our economy unless we can significantly increase women’s participation in it. Look to Japan to see how a low female workforce participation rate combined with more elderly plays out: stagnation.

Investing early in children’s development is not a luxury for the few Fortune 500 CEOs with the means to build a nursery adjacent to their corner offices. It is the crux of our state’s economic competitiveness, with the highest return on investment of any form of workforce development spending — up to $17 per dollar spent, depending what outcomes are measured. It is the key to unlocking women’s potential in the workforce. And to create the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we have to make significant seed investment now in years zero to five.

Vien Truong is environmental equity director for the Greenlining Institute based in Berkeley. He wrote this for this newspaper.