- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

The slow pace of the Gulf Coast recovery after Hurricane Katrina has made global headlines. While many still find fault and much has been made about what could have been done after the storm, one critical factor in the region’s recovery and a return to normal for everyone is not receiving the attention it is due.

The essential element is safe, reliable, high-quality child care, which is truly early childhood education.

In Mississippi, early damage assessments found 62 percent to 94 percent of licensed child-care centers in the state’s three hardest-hit counties were damaged or destroyed. Across 14 counties, the future of 291 licensed centers providing quality care for 22,294 young children remains uncertain. In New Orleans, there were 15,731 day-care slots at 266 licensed day care centers before the storm hit, according to a study funded by Save the Children. Today, the numbers remain alarming: 80 percent of those centers and 75 percent of the slots are closed.

For a city like New Orleans, which has many single-parent families, this is a disaster with long-lasting impact. The mud and the wreckage may be cleared away, but the lack of child-care facilities still keeps too many parents at home and out of work, or out of the area altogether.

The Save the Children study found 33 of 61 New Orleans neighborhoods — 54 percent — lost all their licensed day-care centers; Central City, Mid-city and Uptown lost 60 percent or more of their centers. In the whole city, only 52 centers were open as of early July and more than 56 percent of those closed are expected to remain so. Furthermore, of the 30 Head Start or Early Head Start programs in the parish before the hurricane, only 10 provide services for children today.

Family child care sites, which can take up to six children, are starting up here and there, but not fast enough. Larger centers, including those that are open 24 hours or on weekends, are even fewer and further between.

As a result, businesses of every size struggle to remain in operation. I spoke with a woman picking up her 4-year-old son at one center who told me she could not work at a local restaurant if the center had not reopened. And senior-level executives at Chevron, the second-largest employer in Mississippi, have consistently said their goal of helping employees and the region recover and conduct business cannot be met without good child care arrangements for their workers.

As a result of this situation, Chevron contributed $2 million to a partnership formed by Save the Children and Mississippi State University to not only restore but improve the quality of care to as many of the region’s child-care facilities as possible. The partnership has rebuilt more than 70 centers along the Mississippi coast so far, and we are working with the Louisiana Department of Social Services to bring in public and private funding for a similar plan for New Orleans.

These centers are more than just warehouses to store kids during the day. They are safe spaces and comfort zones for children who have lost homes, pets, belongings and sometimes even family members. They offer children a place to learn and talk about what happened to them, to come to understand their new lives, to recover their balance. The children are developing emotionally, socially and cognitively and, at the same time, their parents can begin to work and recover as well.

It is important to note this work has gone forward with minimal government support. However, it is time for the federal government to get off the sidelines and into the game. Under the Stafford Act, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has the mandate to fund temporary housing and rebuilding of schools and other community infrastructures defined as critical. Congress should change the law to include child care as an essential service in the community. With available federal dollars, child-care centers could be built in a more expedited manner.

Child care is one of the best investments we can make to ensure a strong, well-educated work force for the future. Children from quality early learning settings have higher high school graduation rates and higher college achievement. Children who are better educated are more productive adults, likely to be healthier, pay more taxes, and less likely to require welfare and other public assistance.

Indeed, in 2000, workers without a high school degree earned about $6,000 less than those with a high school diploma, and half as much as those with a college degree. According to the High Scope Perry Preschool Project, for every dollar invested in a high-quality early childhood program, the direct and indirect economic benefits to the public total about $7.16.

It is time to stop the blame game. So much work needs to be done in the Gulf Coast area, including rebuilding schools and homes. But surely people will not come back if there is no adequate child care. It is time for all of us — government, nonprofit, and for-profit entities — to work together to help our youngest children. It’s a sound investment for the Gulf Coast, and the entire country.

Mark K. Shriver is vice president and managing director of U.S. programs at Save the Children.

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