Opinion: Jewish values call us to invest in early childhood education

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The Build Back Better Act would save parents money and provide Jewish and other faith-based early childhood centers access to federal funding to pay staff fairly.

I've witnessed the power of faith-based early childhood education with my own family.

I have three children, but it was only my third child who attended an early childhood center at our local synagogue in Warren, New Jersey. I saw the impact of a Jewish education as a parent first-hand. The values-based education deepened my family's connection to our religious tradition, provided an ethical framework that made navigating parenthood more manageable, and forged intergenerational bonds.

This transformative experience for me as a parent led me to pursue a career in early childhood education. I ran a small school that turned into a larger school in our synagogue. Early childhood is a time when families feel vulnerable, and it is a powerful experience to help them deepen their connection with Judaism and answer questions that are difficult to navigate in isolation.

I've gone on to work with Jewish early childhood education centers across North America through my role at the Union for Reform Judaism. Out of the group's nearly 850 congregations (which encompass approximately 1.8 million Reform Jews), 275 of the congregations have early childhood centers. While many other communal spaces in Jewish life closed physical operations during the pandemic, most centers stayed open and provided a lifeline to our essential workers helping keep our communities afloat.

My experience with Jewish early childhood centers from coast to coast has made me keenly aware of the need for federal investment in child care and universal pre-kindergarten. I know the powerful impact that a strong start to a child's life can make and want to make sure every child in America can get that strong start.

The Build Back Better Act now being considered in Congress calls for historic investments to create a child care affordability guarantee that would save the typical family with young children between $5,000 and $6,500 a year in most states and guarantee universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. The investments will help families find affordable and consistent child care, something that is already difficult to find.

The legislation will also raise the wages of teachers who work in early childhood education. With the typical early educator earning just $12 an hour on average, we must do more to fairly compensate this essential workforce.

The economic realities of child care are staggering. An analysis from the Center for American Progress finds that the typical family with young children spends roughly $13,000 a year on child care, and yet the average teacher earns just $24,000 a year and nearly half receive some public assistance. This makes it incredibly difficult for providers to retain teachers.

I've seen the human impact of the low pay for teachers. I met one teacher, Debbie Foster, who lives by herself here in Colorado and still has to work a second job as a Hebrew tutor just to be able to sustain a basic livelihood. Teachers love the children and families but cannot afford to live — and parents can't afford to pay more. That's why we need federal funding to invest in this critical human infrastructure.

Critically, the Build Back Better Act allows a mixed delivery system in which Jewish and other faith-based early childhood centers could access federal funding, while importantly protecting the separation of church and state. Among other things, that means there should be no religious or other exemptions that would allow taxpayer funds to be used to discriminate within government-supported programs.

The Union for Reform Judaism is not alone in speaking out for the investments in child care in the Build Back Better agenda. Shma Koleinu ("Hear Our Voices" in Hebrew) is another group of Jewish early childhood educators from various denominations and institutions that are working together to call for federal investments in early childhood education; on its website, the group notes that the no. 1 priority in any federal investment must be "paying teachers a livable wage."

Becoming involved in Jewish early childhood education has deepened my connection to my religious tradition which teaches that we are called to repair the world — "tikkun olam" in Hebrew. I've seen how investing in early childhood education can repair the world by creating a brighter future and foundation for one child at a time. Congress has the opportunity to repair so much of what's wrong with our early childhood education system and Jews working in this field across the country are calling on them to do so.

Cathy Rolland is founding president of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism and chair of the Efshar Project based in Colorado.