Following the White House Conference on Child Care, Early Childhood Today asked Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, to join us for lunch to discuss the issues surrounding child care and what might lie ahead.
EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: What's really at issue as we consider the options, some of which may be backed by President and Mrs. Clinton, to support better child care?
ELLEN GALINSKY: For so long we've worried about whether enough child care is available and whether it's affordable that we've almost ignored what happens to the children in that arrangement. Also, we've been so focused on whether mothers should work that we've almost ignored how we support families. The research on brain development makes it very evident that we can't afford not to care about who is taking care of and teaching our children.
So we really have to shift our emphasis in two ways. We have to think about how society supports the care that children need first and foremost from their families, and then from the others who care for them. And second, we need to make sure that the child care that's out there is good for kids and that parents can afford it.
ECT: Why do you think when child care is talked about, it's always in the context of what works for a working parent rather than for the child?
GALINSKY: We've had two movements in this country. One is concerned with the education of children - the nursery school movement or the kindergarten movement - and the other has really been predicated on the needs of working parents, particularly working mothers. The result is a tension between the need for education and the need for care. But I think that's begun to fade. By that I mean people have stopped labeling a program "education" or "care" based on the hours a program is open - as in, "nursery school" means education, but "all day" means care.
Historically, at least in a public policy sense, "care" wasn't considered necessary for all children. It was just necessary for parents who had to support their families. Education, on the other hand, was something that was good for everyone. For too long there's been the notion that education and care run on separate tracks. Those tracks have to come together.
ECT: So, do you think there will ever come a time when the all-day provision for children whose parents work and the more purely educational programs will converge?
GALINSKY: Not only do I think they should, I think that they actually are converging. In some of the states that have started pre-kindergarten programs, they're in schools and in community-based settings. These programs are meeting the diverse needs of families for varying hours of care. And finally, they're designed to be high quality - that is, they must be accredited or use proven curricula approaches, and they require the ongoing education of teachers and caregivers.
ECT: Looking back to the White House Conference on Child Care, what did you find the most exciting?
GALINSKY: I must admit that I didn't expect to be as moved by the conference as I was. We'd been planning it for a long time; I'd written my speech out and rehearsed it; I'd participated in the press conference with the First Lady the day before. So I felt ready, as though this were, well, normal.
And then, walking out there and seeing all the (continued on page 29) people gathered - from members of Congress to colleagues with whom I've worked on this issue for 25 years - and knowing that the cameras of the country were on us - was profoundly moving. Very unexpectedly, I was sitting next to Michele Seligson, executive director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, and we just reached for each other's hand under the table. We were so excited that this country was finally focusing on what happens to young children.
ECT: There certainly seems to be an opportunity to do something right now, but do you think we will?
GALINSKY: I don't know whether we will. I don't know whether we'll like what we do. I don't know whether it will last. I don't know whether it's going to get divisive or political. But I do think that we know an awful lot now. We know what's good for kids and how to do it. We have examples of successful programs. We even know how to think creatively about how to finance services. We're at a moment when we have the knowledge of some good approaches to try. And it seems that there is a political will to try to invest in the well-being of young children.
ECT: Political will - is that what you think it's going to take, Ellen? If you had to say what the bottom line was in terms of something happening, is that it?
GALINSKY: Well, business doesn't do something unless, bottom line, it's good for business. And I don't think policymakers do anything unless, bottom line, it's good for their image. Now, while that may be seen as negative, in fact, to me that's simply their bottom line. So I think it is going to take political will.
Right now, we at the Families and Work Institute and many other leaders in the early childhood field are getting calls from members of Congress and their staffs as they work on crafting legislation. However, in the end, if the public doesn't register that it cares about what happens to young children, this issue will fade.
Actually, if that were to happen, it wouldn't necessarily mean that people don't care - but that working parents feel overwhelmed by all they have to do.
ECT: At the same time, there has been a real grassroots movement, with communities mobilizing all over the country. Isn't that having some impact?
GALINSKY: Yes. We know of countless efforts that have been going on for the last six or seven years where people have gotten together in communities and said, "We're tired of all this, we're mad, and we're not going to take it anymore." Business leaders are joining with those in the child-care field, in education, in philanthropy and in the churches, with politicians and legislators. They are creating a vision of what they want their community to look like in 10 years, and they're strategizing to get to their vision.
ECT: Do you believe that this administration, if given the go-ahead, will support this need?
GALINSKY: These are issues that the President and the First Lady cared deeply about well before they came into this office, and these are issues they know about.
ECT: One last question. Do you have a particular message for our readers?
GALINSKY: I think that we've learned about what children need. We know children need people in their lives who truly care about them, who are responsive to them emotionally, who will comfort them if they're hurt and share their joy when they're excited. They need people who are responsive to them intellectually -- caring people who, when a child comes in enthusiastic about something he's seen on the way to child care, will further that child's interest and connect it to learning.
The recent research on brain development has enhanced our knowledge of how to teach and how to parent. So it's really a wonderful time to be a teacher - and to be a parent.
Ellen Galinsky is president and cofounder of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, a national center for policy research on issues of the changing work force and changing family lives. She is also a past president of NAEYC.