D.C. Council Members Defend Child Development Bills

by: James Wright Special to the AFRO jwright@afro.com
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Washington, D.C. council members Vincent Gray and Robert White want to change the way infants and toddlers are educated in the District of Columbia.

D.C. Council members Vincent Gray, D-Ward 7 (left) and Robert White, D-At-large (right) introduce bills to improve early education and health services for children. (Courtesy photo)

Gray, a Ward 7 Democrat, is the author of the Infant and Toddler Developmental Health Services Act of 2017 and White, an at-large Democrat, is spearheading the Bolstering Early Growth Investment Act of 2017. Given that the bills have similar goals for different age groups of young children, the council decided to have a joint hearing of the Committee on Education, the Committee on Health, which Gray chairs, and the Committee on Finance and Revenue to review the pieces of legislation on Sept. 27.

The Gray bill creates a comprehensive infant and toddler structure, starting in Wards 7 and 8 and eventually expanding to the rest of the District, focused on early childhood education and infant health. White’s bill establishes a city-run Office on Childhood Development, an infant and toddler task force, expands the duties of the Early Childhood Development Coordinating Council and permits the mayor to provide financial incentives to qualified child development facilities.

Gray said he has been working on early childhood education issue for some time.

“When I was chairman of the council, we worked with early childhood education,” Gray said. “We wanted to make sure that every child could go to school and open classrooms to young children though they were not ready for formal education.”

Gray said he got resistance to his ideas at the time because educating young children at that time in their lives was “too demanding, too expensive and the parents wouldn’t support it.” Gray said since early childhood education programs have been implemented while he was mayor, the District is considered one of the leaders nationally in the field.

“We showed the doubters and naysayers who say that children are too young to learn,” he said.

White said early child care is expensive in the District, with many charging $1,800 a month for the service. The council member said he experienced this first-hand when he and his wife tried to get good child care for his 15-month daughter, Madison.

He said that waiting lists to get into some well-known quality programs is long. White added that many dedicated child care professionals leave their positions because they are underpaid.

“The average child care worker in the District makes $26,000,” he said at the hearing. “The most dedicated workers move on and those who are talented don’t consider it a profession.”

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who chairs the Finance and Revenue Committee, supports both pieces of legislation, saying, “We need to get children in school as early as possible.

“If you get a child in school at 3 years old, they’ll have a vocabulary of 1,000 words or more,” he said. “If the child starts school at kindergarten or first grade their vocabulary is 300 to 400 and is already behind.”

Carrie Thornhill was one of the 53 people who testified on the legislation. Thornhill, the president of the D.C. Early Learning Collaborative, said the District needed to develop an infant and toddler education system and a publicly-funded child care center network that is affordable for residents.

Nicole Odom agreed that the District government needs to do more to help struggling families.

“I am a resident of Barry Farms in Ward 8,” she said at the hearing. “We need quality child care in Ward 8. My husband and I have pretty high standards for child care and we found a few but they weren’t in my ward.”

Odom said she initially applied for a child care center in January but didn’t get a call back until July. She said that her child care provider is in Ward 1, and it is expensive for her and her husband to transport their child to and from that caretaker.

“I am working part-time and my husband works full-time but it isn’t enough,” she said. “We use a $20 voucher for the child care but the use of the Metro, food and housing has to be taken into account for our budget. “

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