The most memorable scene of the picture perfect photo op on the Capitol lawn on Wednesday was not the 40-by-40 foot game of Chutes and Ladders with an early childhood education theme spread out on the ground. It wasn’t even Sen. Tom Harkin valiantly torquing his body, trying – and failing — to make a sparkly pink hula hoop stay up around his waist.
No, instead it was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand kicking off her shoes, sitting down on a corner of the life-size game with a group of squirming three-year-olds, pulling one onto her lap, and not only leading a lively discussion of favorite colors, books, foods and numbers, but expertly mediating what could have been an ugly tussle between Mercedes and Michayla over a little red ladder they both wanted to play with.
The Chutes and Ladders game was set up to call attention to the benefits of high-quality early childhood education and to try to return attention to President Obama’s $75 billion universal preschool initiative, which has been languishing as fractious lawmakers squabble over Syria, the debt ceiling or take another vote to overturn the health care law about to go into effect.
Lawmakers and business leaders showed up throughout the morning to take the microphone and announce their commitment to early learning for all and take a turn playing the game, set up by MomsRising, a national advocacy group, and the National Women’s Law Center.
Ladder: “Children who have high quality early learning are more likely to graduate from high school and gain stable employment and less likely to be arrested.”
Chute: “Pay for child care workers is barely above the federal poverty threshold.”
So why this scene with Gillibrand?
Because Gillibrand, D-New York, in her stocking feet, and her ease and competence with both children and public policy, shows just how much Congress has changed since it last considered a major preschool and child care bill in the early 1970s.
Gillibrand is one of a handful of mothers of young children currently serving in Congress – and already part of a rarefied group of women who make up 18 percent of the male-dominated body. Because she not only supports expanding early childhood education for all children, she sent her own two children to the child care center near the Capitol, where, like at many high quality centers the waiting list can be so long that the children are sometimes too old by the time the slot opens up.
When I spoke with now-retired Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colorado, not long ago, she said lawmakers who talked about child care or preschool in those days risked being labeled a communist. The prevailing view was that children belonged at home with their mothers, who also belonged at home. Anytime she mentioned child care and preschool to colleagues, she told me, they’d look at her cross-eyed, thinking she meant babysitting so mothers could go play tennis. Most lawmakers at the time were men with wives who stayed home with children, she said. They had no idea how the rest of the world lived.
And that’s why Gillibrand was so striking. She not only gets it, she lives it.
“The laws and the rules and norms of our workplaces have not kept up with the nature of our workforce,” Gillibrand said, as she stood up. She rattled off familiar statistics: The majority of mothers with young children work. Many are breadwinners or single parents. Sixty-two percent of minimum-wage earners are women. “The reality is, it’s not like it was in the 1950s or 60s anymore.”
And, lawmakers pointed out in various speeches throughout the morning, with child care in some states costing more than college and with child care standards and quality all over the map, many working mothers and working families can’t afford or can’t find good, quality preschool at the very time when a child’s brain is literally exploding with new neurons and is most ready to learn.
“To have a youngster’s future determined by the zip code they live in is not right. And it’s not necessary,” said John Pepper, retired CEO of Procter & Gamble and a member of ReadyNation, a group of CEOs lobbying for early childhood education. “The voices of the children, the parents, the single moms are not being heard loudly enough. They’re limited compared to the voices of lobbyists around here.”
And that, Gillibrand said, is why she decided to spend the morning playing a life-size game of Chutes and Ladders, and sitting with three-year-olds in front of TV cameras. “We have to amplify our voices,” she said. “If we don’t, early childhood education will never be on the national agenda. It is never going to be a national priority.”
With that, Gillibrand put her shoes back on, straightened her dress, made sure Mercedes had the red ladder she’d given her, kissed Michayla goodbye and waved to another little girl. “See you later alligator.”