Sen. Jennifer McClellan reveals specifics about her universal childcare and early learning plan.

RICHMOND – For Sen. Jennifer McClellan, education’s a part of life. It always has been.

“My parents were educators,” McClellan said. “My mom, at one time, was a childcare provider about 50 years ago and taught [and] trained childcare providers in Kentucky.”

However, it took firsthand experience to truly see the issues that the childcare system had – and the choices parents faced.

“So I understood the importance of childcare and early learning, but then I really saw it once I became a mom,” McClellan said.

As a delegate, Jennifer McClellan searched for quality, affordable childcare. Finding the perfect place – at a manageable rate – proved difficult.

Suddenly, the representative experienced thoughts many mothers have: how do I physically care for and financially provide for my child at the same time?

Fortunately, McClellan came across a childhood development center that fit her needs. However, some parents don’t have the same experience.

Childcare Needs

In 2016, Child Care Aware of America released a study on childcare needs in Virginia. It found that out of Virginia’s 8,326,289 residents, 507,550 of them were children age birth to four years. Of those children, 84,421 of them lived in poverty.

The state served as home to an additional 730,562 children between five and 11 years of age.

Total in the commonwealth, there were 265,596 single parent families and 132,672 families lived in poverty.

Additionally, nearly a quarter of a million households with small children had both parents in the labor force. Approximately 100,000 fewer Virginia households had a single parent of a child under age six in the workforce. That brought the grand total of children under six needing potential childcare in Virginia to just shy of 400,000.

However, there were only 364,817 available childcare options in the state. That number included childcare center programs, licensed family childcare homes, spaces in school-aged care programs and other programs.

The numbers of children needing childcare and the number of options available didn’t add up. McClellan took notice.

“There aren’t existing high quality options for every kid,” McClellan said.

Working Moms

Ask any mom. She’ll tell you the same thing. Being a mom is a full-time job in and of itself.

In 2016, married working mothers accounted for 449,373 of Virginia’s population. Single working mothers accounted for 170,718 Virginians.

McClellan noted that parents can’t work without reliable care in place for their children. The pandemic that swept the nation last year exacerbated the issue for many families.

“We already had a childcare crisis, but COVID just made it worse as we saw childcare centers closing down,” McClellan said. “And parents, even now, many of them are unable to go back to work because they don’t have childcare.”

Some American mothers faced more disparities than others.

In an op-ed published in May, Jennifer McClellan placed childcare at the intersection of Black women in the workforce and Black mothers raising children. She noted that across the country, Black families were more likely to live in “child care deserts” and more likely to cite cost as a barrier to finding childcare than white families.

“…The rising cost of child care has exacerbated inequity in education, 154,000 Black women across the country left the workforce in December alone and care workers – who are disproportionately Black women – are still one of the most underpaid groups in the nation,” Jennifer McClellan wrote in part. “To close the achievement gap, support Black moms and pay Black women the wages they deserve, we need to implement universal childcare.”

More than Babysitting

In McClellan’s experience, she sometimes encountered individuals that likened childcare centers to babysitters. In many cases, that’s not a fair representation.

“It wasn’t until we started to have more working parents in the General Assembly that this issue really began to take off,” McClellan said. “I remember when I first got elected to the House, people viewed early childhood education and childcare just as babysitting. And it was almost an attitude of, like, ‘Well, isn’t that, like, what the mother’s supposed to do?’ And over time, as more working moms became legislators, we were like, ‘No, this is something we’ve got to focus on.’”

Rather than purely entertaining the children, many childcare centers also teach them throughout the day. That was an important component to McClellan when she searched a good childcare provider for her children.

“I just really came to understand that early learning, starting at birth, lays the foundation for an equitable high quality education [and] that the equity gap starts at birth,” McClellan said. “We have too many kids that aren’t kindergarten-ready when they walk into kindergarten. And so from both an economic perspective and an educational perspective, it is so foundational that it has to be the center of any economic recovery or any education plan.”

That’s one of the reasons McClellan – who also served on the Southern Region Education Board and the Early Childhood Education Task Force – highlighted the issue through her political platform.

“No one was really talking about it at the level that I thought it warranted,” McClellan said. “So I decided I’m going to make it the top priority, but I’m making it the first policy I roll out.”

The Plan

McClellan ultimately hopes to implement universal childcare and early childhood education for every family in Virginia with a child age four and under. The plan invests $4 billion in the state’s early childhood system and makes child care a public necessity.

“I also want to make sure that that every family has access and can afford it,” McClellan said. “So my plan would make sure no family pays more than seven percent of their income towards childcare through a subsidy system.”

McClellan’s plan has a second key feature, beyond affordability – education.

“What I want to do is stabilize and grow the system,” McClellan said. “And I use childcare and early learning interchangeably because if done right, it’s both.”

Effecting change on a local level, McClellan encouraged parents to share their experiences.

“I think it is critically important for parents who are facing this problem now to speak up and tell their stories about how hard it is to find quality, affordable childcare – how much it costs,” McClellan said. “And especially care providers themselves who, I mean, many of them don’t even get paid enough to put their own children in childcare.”

She pointed to some of the ways her plan would benefit average Virginia families.

“We really need to fundamentally shift how we fund childcare right now. It’s a model that basically says, ‘We charge everything on the parents,’ and that’s not sustainable,” McClellan said. “So we really need to invest in and subsidize it at the state, local and federal level. So my plan focuses on making sure we are really investing in childcare and treating it as a public benefit, rather than a luxury.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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