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The Cost of Preschool Nearly Broke Us — And It’s a Symptom of What Is Wrong in Our Country

When I was a preteen, I dreaded going off to sleep-away camp. Sure, I was looking forward to eight weeks of summer fun in New York’s Catskill Mountains, but I had also somehow convinced myself that my mild-mannered parents and younger siblings immediately descended into a life of bacchanalia the moment the doors closed on that Sullivan County-bound bus.

Thirty years later, I’m still thinking about that fantasy, because I’m wondering if it’s okay if I act it out for real when my own daughter steps onto the school bus and heads off to public kindergarten in September. Like, can I pop open a bottle of champagne at the bus stop? (No, New York State law says I can’t, but work with me here.) After all, I’ve got something to celebrate: For the first time since my daughter was born, the majority of my income won’t be going toward her child care.

When I was pregnant, I decided to make a serious investment in my baby’s early childhood education, and that I would sacrifice whatever was necessary for that to happen. Since my daughter is an only child, I wanted to ensure she entered kindergarten with solid cognitive and social skills – something she would gain by both interacting with other children, as well as qualified professionals. The research speaks for itself when it comes to the benefits of high-quality early childhood education: Children who attend an ECE program are less likely to need special-education placement, are less likely to repeat a grade and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Because my daughter has been going to preschool since she was two years old, she is already a crackerjack reader, has a keen interest in geography and math, and walks into most social situations with confidence and enthusiasm. I’m pleased to say I got what I paid for. Pleased and grateful, that is: Thanks to the preschool’s strict protocols, my daughter was able to continue attending safely and in person throughout the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, these benefits came at a, quite literally, huge cost, making high-quality early childhood education in this country a privilege only to those who can afford it. While I recognize how fortunate I have been in my ability to provide this opportunity for my daughter, I’d like to take this time to say, for the record, that spending more than $86,000 on three years of early education caused an enormous strain on my family’s finances. Since about 95% of my income as a full-time writer and editor and went toward child care, my husband was saddled with all of our other bills. Making matters worse, he works in the entertainment industry, and he lost a significant chunk of his income due to the pandemic. So anything other than the essentials were pretty much impossible over the past five years. Without presenting a spreadsheet of our earnings, let me put things in perspective: President Biden’s Child Tax Credit, part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law on March 11, 2021, is a form of tax relief providing anywhere from $3,000 to $3,600 per child to working families over the next year. While this credit, which can be used for anything – groceries, utilities, rent, child care, etc. – has been both welcome and incredibly helpful for my family, it barely would’ve made a dent in our preschool fees.

That’s because our monthly tuition cost more than our mortgage, maintenance, utility and phone bills – combined. And it didn’t take a lot of research for me to understand that this is a familiar refrain for many families. According to the Center for American Progress, child care regularly eats up one-third (or more) of a family’s budget. And this financial crunch doesn’t only hit homeowners: A 2016 study conducted in partnership between the think tank New America and determined that the price of full-time care in American child care centers is 85% of the monthly U.S. median cost of rent.

It’s hardly news that a good early childhood education program has an exorbitant price tag. Back in 2019, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Universal Child Care plan exposed the hard truth that millions of working parents continue to face every day: finding affordable, high-quality child care is a challenge, regardless of the pandemic. Although the Biden Administration earmarked an unprecedented $39 billion in funds for child care assistance as part of the American Rescue Plan back in April, it may not enough to overhaul the country’s child care problems in the long term, per the Center for American Progress.

Only because our daughter has “aged out” of day care and is starting public school, does it feel like my husband and I can finally see our way forward financially. Since I won’t be greeted anymore with a sky-high tuition bill every month, I can help with regular household expenses for the first time in five years. Maybe even plan a family vacation!

From speaking to my friends, I know I’m not the only parent for whom shifting from private preschool to kindergarten marks the lift of a hefty financial burden. One friend said that as soon as his kids moved into public school, he and his wife stopped borrowing money (they used a loan to help pay for preschool), and were able to start saving for their children’s college education. Even then, he made sure to mention, “We were lucky to get through it that way” – and he’s not wrong.

Let’s face it: Anyone who managed to get through this past year and a half with the help of a childcare facility is lucky. One-third of child-care centers permanently shut down as a result of COVID-19, and many that managed to stay open are on precarious footing. But pandemic or not, high-quality early childhood education remains comfortably out of reach for too many families (not to mention that child-care employees earn shockingly low wages). If we really want to talk about how we as a country can stop failing our children, fixing all that would be a great place to start.

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