This commentary first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
Our state legislators take a lot of heat in these pages. But today we want to tell you about a decision they got right — and that is now in the hands of the Texas Workforce Commission to implement properly.
A growing number of Republican and Democratic officials are supporting public school pre-K for 4-year-olds as a strategy for improving our school system and boosting our economy. Last year a bipartisan group of Texas legislators realized that private child care providers play an equally crucial role in shaping young children’s brain architecture, their long-term health and their chances for success in school and beyond.
Once they decided to work on improving child care quality, they came up with a smart strategy for their first step: using the current child care subsidy program to incentivize private providers to do the right thing. The commission is working with stakeholders to rewrite standards for the Texas Rising Star program for high-quality child care providers and to increase financial incentives that go with it. There are a few areas that are particularly important for them to get right.
Brain science confirms what many parents know intuitively: During the first few years of life, children need adults to talk with them, read with them and play with them. But Texas allows a single child care teacher to monitor as many as 11 2-year-olds, leaving teachers with time to do little more than change children’s diapers and feed them.
Other states have embraced the research that shows smaller class sizes and lower child-caregiver ratios are key to child safety, early learning and a center’s overall quality. The commissions’s draft rules encourage manageable class sizes and ratios, but they should require them for all providers seeking a Texas Rising Star designation.
Research also tells us that breast milk can work wonders for babies and toddlers, helping reduce the likelihood of conditions like diabetes and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections. For moms who choose to breastfeed, navigating child care and breastfeeding can be particularly challenging. But there are ways that child care providers can support moms who are balancing work, child care and breastfeeding.
We’re pleased to see the commission’s rules reward centers for giving parents information on local breastfeeding resources upon request. But few parents know to ask, so centers should be more proactive. Eventually, we want to see incentives for giving moms a private space that isn’t a bathroom to nurse or express breast milk.
A third way child care providers influence children’s long-term health is through their policies on play time, nutrition and sugary drinks. Children develop nutritional preferences and physical activity habits long before they enter they public school system. If we want middle-schoolers to enjoy drinking water and eating an apple instead of turning to chips and sodas, then child care providers can be a big help in establishing those good habits.
The state’s proposal would incentivize centers to establish menus that meet new health guidelines or have the approval of nutrition experts. The commission could help interested facilities comply by offering sample menus or other resources. Further, the commission should reward child care providers who eliminate sugary drinks entirely.
If the Texas Workforce Commission gets these decisions right, it will make a world of difference for young Texans.
Bufkin is early opportunities policy associate and Brauer is early education policy associate at Texans Care for Children.