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Staff photo by Tim Barber / Edna Varner

As a teacher, principal, administrator and senior adviser to Chattanooga's Public Education Foundation, Edna Varner has spent most of her career working with and advocating for middle and high school students and teachers.

But Varner says one of the most critical educational needs in East Tennessee starts long before students are in those secondary school classrooms. Preparing children to learn and develop when they are 3 and 4 years old is critical in shaping their future success in school and in life.

"When we got students in middle school who couldn't read or write or really articulate their thoughts, my first question was, what are the elementary people doing?" she said. "It had never occurred to me that many students come to kindergarten already behind when they don't have opportunities for early childhood education. Every year, we are having to play catch up with some students, and many, by the time they get to high school, are so frustrated about being behind and failing every year that they just give up and drop out."

Varner said the $1.8 trillion American Families plan proposed by President Biden should help better prepare more children to succeed in school by giving their families more economic support and by supporting programs to expand and improve early childhood education.

The Biden plan calls for a historic $200 billion investment for universal preschool programs. All employees in participating pre-K programs and Head Start would earn at least $15 per hour under the White House plan, and investments in tuition-free community college and teacher scholarships would be expanded to support those who wish to earn a bachelor's degree or another credential that supports their work to become an early childhood educator.

Republican critics of Biden's plan question its hefty price tag and the higher corporate tax rates that would support the proposal. U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, in April called the proposal for universal preschool "anti family" by pushing more young children into government-controlled schools while other GOP lawmakers like Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, have denounced the overall Biden proposal as "bloated" and not focused enough on traditional infrastructure spending targeted on projects like building or repairing roads, bridges and airports.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who co-authored the tax cuts pushed by former President Donald Trump, warned if the U.S. raises business tax rates again and spends trillions of dollars more in government programs, "We will see a financial crisis at some point in the future" and may not realize many gains in educational or economic performance. While federal support for education has more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars in the past 30 years, educational test scores have not improved in most areas, Brady said.

But Varner said the Biden preschool initiative is targeted at one of the biggest educational needs and offers a rich payback potential to boost educational and economic achievement for more Americans.

"Children's most formative years are before they even hit kindergarten," she said. "Brain development is happening at the maximum capacity, and yet we do not have a system that is robust enough to support that in a quality way."

A study by the National Association of Business Research shows that a dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programs for low-income children will result in up to $7.30 in benefits, including increased wages, improved health and reduced crime.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the child care industry has suffered massive job losses. Between February 2020 and April 2020, the industry lost 373,300 jobs, over a third of its workforce, with women accounting for 94.8% of those losses, according to the National Women's Law Center. As of May 2021, the child care workforce was 87.1% the size it was in February 2020, meaning more than 1 in 8 child care jobs were still lost over a year into the pandemic.

The lack of child care has also reduced the number of people in the workforce. With schools and child care centers closed last year, the number of women in the U.S. labor market fell by more than 2.3 million, cutting the female workforce participation rate to a 33-year low, according to an analysis of jobs data by the National Employment Law Project.

In Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, there are 235 licensed child care centers, including 147 in Hamilton County. Donna McConnico, CEO of the Chattanooga-based Signal Centers, said eight centers in Hamilton County permanently closed during the pandemic, and some have yet to reopen or are just now reopening for many students.

"Right here in Tennessee, there is an incredible child care crisis," she said. "It's been that way for some time, but the pandemic shined a great big spotlight on this issue."

Much of the challenge stems from the costs of providing preschool programs "and having parents bear all of those costs, unless they qualify for some kind of subsidy," McConnico said.

Biden has expanded the child tax credit and is proposing to expand many of the educational programs now provided for kindergarten through high school to preschool children and some college training.

Chattanooga has sought to expand early childhood education, including the creation of Baby University to help educate pregnant and other parents about early childhood development and former Mayor Andy Berke's "Seats for Success," which added 1,136 high-quality early learning seats at child care facilities in Chattanooga.

But to reach more families across East Tennessee, a broader federal effort is needed, according to David Eichenthal, the former Chattanooga city finance director and head of the Ochs Center in Chattanooga, now managing director at Public Financial Management.

"A national focus is what you are going to need because smaller and poorer counties also need this kind of support," he said.

Eichenthal, a lifelong Democrat, has organized a series of forums this month to discuss and promote both Biden's American Rescue Plan and American Families Plan.

"I believe there are Republicans and independents who support efforts to bring back the national economy," he said.

A public opinion survey by Global Strategies Group found 3rd District voters favor Biden's plans by a 48-44 percent plurality. Among the respondents to the GSG survey, 62% said "offering free, high-quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-old children" is a priority and 59% said "providing nationwide access to paid medical and family leave" is a priority.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

Infrastructure forums

Each of the 3rd district virtual events on infrastructure will begin at 7 p.m. and may be accessed via the Anderson County Democratic Party website at https://www.andersoncountydemocraticparty.com/third-district-forums

* Housing on June 14. Laurel Blatchford, chief of staff to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama Administration, will discuss how funding under the American Rescue Plan is designed to prevent foreclosures and evictions.

* Infrastructure on June 17. Andy Kopplin, the first deputy mayor to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and founding executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), will discuss how the American Jobs Plan will support infrastructure investment.

* Poverty on June 21. Mark Linton, the former executive director of the White House Council on Strong Cities Strong Communities and director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will discuss efforts to reduce poverty and assist recovery in economically challenged places.

* Bideneconomics vs. Trumpeconomics on June 28. Mark Green, the elected public advocate of the city of New York and co-author of "Who Runs Congress?" will compare President Biden's economic strategy to President Trump's approach.

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