Sarasota County shouldn't turn its back on child care, early learning

Categories: Stories of Impact, EMPOWERMENT AND SUCCESS: Scholarship Opportunities,

Early learning programs and child care are sound economic investments that create a strong foundation for a child's education, health and success.

A recent Florida Chamber report found that Florida loses $5.4 billion in economic value due to parents having to be away from their jobs while caring for children under the age of six. Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman showed that every $1 invested in quality early childhood programs can yield returns of up to $16 by reducing future costs.

A child's early years hold the key to their success; numerous studies have proven, and good-old common sense tells us, that children with access to quality early learning are more prepared for kindergarten. They have an increased vocabulary and better language, math, and social skills. As they continue their education, children with access to quality child care are less likely to require special needs education or be held back a grade. They are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college.

These are better outcomes for children and their families that also save taxpayers money.

Unfortunately, on June 5, with a 4 to 1 vote, the Sarasota County Commission ended years of funding for the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County (ELC). As authorized by Florida statutes, the ELC is responsible for the oversight of local early education services to improve the quality of local child care sites and support school readiness outcomes for all children in Sarasota County.

The disappearance of $500,000 in county funding means that the ELC will no longer be eligible to draw down an additional $500,000 in matching state money, leaving more than 300 children without child care, including children of Sarasota County government employees.

The ELC's successful programs use a two-generation approach to building strong families through quality early education. For years, including this year, the ELC has been highly rated by the county commission's own advisory committee of subject-matter experts. This year the advisory committee ranked ELC among the top agencies qualified to receive county funding.

However, ELC and numerous other critical service agencies were denied funding based on a scheme to overhaul the review process and determine priorities without any input from experts in the field of child development, educators, county staff or the county commission's advisory committee. Unlike the transparent process the county commission has used for decades, this most recent decision on how to spend millions of taxpayer dollars was made behind closed doors.

The county's health and human services, including ELC, are funded with property taxes. So this cut becomes even more objectionable considering that it comes during a year when the same commission approved a 14% property tax increase.

One excuse routinely offered by the commission for cutting human services is to suggest that the local foundations will pay for them. This statement demonstrates the commission's lack of understanding of the historic partnership between the county and philanthropy.

Sarasota is fortunate to have numerous foundations that support many local causes, human services among them. Foundations fund enhanced services in health care, education, culture, the environment and children's services above and beyond what local governments typically fund.

This enables our community to rise above other Florida communities and has, for decades, distinguished Sarasota County as one of the safest and most desirable communities in which to live, work and play in the Southeast U.S.

Communities with elevated levels of services – available to all residents – are desirable places to live. They are also attractive places for businesses to invest. Needless and thoughtless cuts to children's services are a step in the wrong direction.

Jon Thaxton is vice president of community leadership for Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Kirsten Russell is vice president of community impact for the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Matthew Sauer is the collaboration and impact officer for Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation.