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Pre-kindergarteners spend time at different stations at Meeting Street Academy @ Brentwood in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

With children and teachers heading back to school next week, now is the time to focus on how South Carolina families and educators need more support, particularly for early childhood education.

From birth to 5 years old is when children need the most support to assure a successful future, both in school and in life. Study after study has shown that an investment in high-quality early childhood education leads to positive outcomes for society at a much higher return than at other times in a person’s life.

Historically, the federal government has not supported early childhood education with the financial backing it requires. However, last year, Congress passed — and President Trump signed — the largest increase in early childhood funding in history, $2.4 billion, to help low-income families access high-quality early childhood programs.

After decades of starving the federal subsidy program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), it was a much-needed shot in the arm that led to an additional $40 million here in South Carolina.

While these seem like big numbers for the country and for our state, it isn’t enough.

Our families need more financial resources to put their children in high-quality early childhood centers, and the teachers in those settings need more pay to even reach the poverty line.

Based on statistics provided by Child Care Aware, without the subsidy, a single parent of one child living in poverty would need to spend 31.7% of his or her salary on child care, and a two-parent family with two children would spend 51.6% of their income on center-based child care.

Infant care alone costs almost half the cost of tuition at a four-year public college. Saving for college is hard enough, but at least there is a little time. From the get-go, young families trying to establish themselves financially are facing an uphill climb with the high costs of child care.

This creates an impossible situation for many South Carolina families, thereby leaving our children and families without the support for early learning opportunities they need.

CCDBG funds also help on the provider side. To provide the highest quality education and care, we have to respect the teachers by providing them with a living wage. The average child care provider in South Carolina makes $20,370 a year. This is well below the national average and the poverty line.

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If our teachers are living in poverty, how can they give the time and attention needed to our children when they are struggling just to make ends meet? It is also difficult to retain teachers who can’t support their own families. CCDBG helps increase the quality of early childhood programs by providing wage increases for child care providers.

Our collective voices can bring about further change and extend high-quality child care to every child in South Carolina. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, an additional increase in CCDBG funding of at least $2.4 billion would bring about $42 million to South Carolina, providing additional child care for up to 4,800 children, and directly impacting families, child care providers, businesses and our state’s economy.

The new school year marks a new beginning in individual classrooms. Our representatives in Washington have an opportunity to mark a new beginning for all of South Carolina’s early childhood students and teachers by expanding the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

Meredith Burton is the director of Furman University’s Child Development Center and president of the South Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children.

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