Before the age of 2, given proper nurture and stimulation, a child's brain will form more neural connections than in any other period of life. Stimulation of these neurons, in turn, prepares young children for reading, language development and other pre-academic skills - along with a disposition toward learning itself - all necessary to be ready to compete successfully in school.
By age 4, nearly 90 percent of a child's potential for learning and leadership has been fully formed. This extraordinary research gives adults cause to carefully consider parenting responsibilities and childcare arrangements, especially as 66 percent of mothers with children under the age of 6 are in the workforce (Kids Count, 2003).
South Carolina's First Steps to School Readiness initiative was created "to expand, extend, improve, or increase access" to a broad range of school readiness services for children ages 0 to 5, their parents and caregivers. Better childcare quality has been a school readiness priority for First Steps since inception in 1999. In 2004 and 2005 alone, First Steps has provided nearly 19,000 hours of training, mentoring and direct technical assistance to almost 800 childcare centers across the state. Nearly 5,000 scholarships (paid with federal funds through the T.E.A.C.H. initiative launched in 2000) have helped child care professionals statewide reach higher educational goals. These First Steps-supported centers and professionals are committed to serving children and parents well and participate in ongoing quality self-assessments to ensure progress toward goals.
Recent research shows strong positive correlation between quality childcare and higher school readiness outcomes for children served. In a focused study on early childhood development completed by the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, higher quality childcare settings resulted in higher child outcomes as measured at kindergarten entry in four of five developmental areas. Quality childcare is an important school readiness strategy for South Carolina.
First Steps supports the proposed childcare regulations before the General Assembly, which will effectively update the 1993 regulations based on the research we now have about what is best for children. We applaud the work of childcare providers, agency professionals, and lawmakers who are working to strengthen these regulations, creating such improvements for children as smaller adult-child ratios to increase child-teacher interaction, a proven measure of educational quality in public or private settings.
First Steps will continue to provide statewide, hands-on local support to child care providers who are working to ensure the highest quality of care for our youngest children.
We also recognize the financial impact of higher quality childcare. It should come as no surprise that higher quality childcare costs more than lesser quality care. In many cases, the operating margin of a childcare center is very tight, such that any investment in quality improvement impacts profitability.
With virtually no increase in average South Carolina per capita income over the past several years (now at approximately $18, 800), the cost of higher quality care cannot be borne by parents alone. New and varied streams of subsidy funding must be found in order to increase resources available to parents and childcare providers in order to bring about better quality childcare choice in our state.
First Steps, with its business, agency and research partners, is committed to identifying and evaluating the "cost of quality" specific to the current South Carolina economic climate and working with our public and private partners to develop a balanced plan to reach higher levels of quality child care as a proven school readiness strategy for SC's children. Quality childcare is one of the state's most critical investments in education and economic development.
The Week of the Young Child, "Children's Opportunities, Our Responsibilities," reminds us to reevaluate our 2005 priorities in the service of young children. Without investment in proven strategies which prepare children for the opportunity to succeed in school - such as high quality child care - we will continue to exact an opportunity cost as a state, as measured by higher rates of educational failure, increased delinquency, lowered productivity and fewer adults prepared for the workforce of tomorrow.
We must break the cycle. Improvement in the availability, affordability, and quality of childcare should be the cornerstone of South Carolina's efforts to improve children's readiness for success in school.
Lee Cory is chairman of the SC First Steps Board of Trustees' Strategic Planning and Administration Committee. He is retired president of BB&T of SC. Lewis Smoak is vice chair of the SC First Steps Board of Trustees and is a founding partner of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart law firm.