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First Five Questions for Reps. Castro and Fitzpatrick Truncated Transcript

*Note: This Q&A has been lightly edited and shortened for publication.

Sarah Rittling (First Five Years Fund): Hello! And welcome to First Five Years Fund’s new First Five Questions series, where we talked to experts, champions, and leaders about the challenges and solutions associated with early childhood education in the United States today.

My name is Sarah Ritling. I’m the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy organization working to sustain and expand federal support for child care and early learning. Our guests today are two incredible Congressional champions for America’s littlest learners and their families. They’re also very busy, so we’re most fortunate to have them here to discuss an issue I know they both hold near and dear to their heart: child care and pre-K. They’re here as co-chairs of the Congressional Bipartisan Pre-K and Child Care Caucus, which they lead with Congresswoman Bonamici of Oregon, and Congresswoman Hinson of Iowa.

We are joined by the founder of the Caucus, Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. While in Congress he’s fought tirelessly for every child to have the opportunity to benefit from quality early learning, particularly those through expanded access to pre-K.

And Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, who for years has led the charge in finding bipartisan solutions to a range of issues in Congress, the least of which is helping children and families in Pennsylvania.

Congressman, welcome and thank you for being the inaugural guest for this new series. We’re so excited to have you join us today.

Question Number One

Rittling: Of all the issues you could be involved in for the country and your district, why early learning and childcare?

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA): Well, thanks for having us first of all. There is no more important responsibility that we have, not just as elected leaders but as human beings, than to take care of our kids. It’s the most important investment we can make. Our youth represent roughly a quarter of our population but a hundred percent of our future. And you know, when it comes to early learning and pre-K, those are the formative years of a child’s brain. It’s perhaps the most important time in their development. And the most important investment we need to make is to give them exposure to a whole host of developmental opportunities, to make sure that they’re prepared to be a really, really great student once they start school, and ultimately a great member of the workforce in our country. There’s a lot of money that gets thrown around [Washington] D.C., some are expenses, other investments. This is probably the most important investment we can make.

Moreover, we have a supply and demand issue. We have a workforce shortage in all industries, including in daycare centers themselves and early learning centers. So we have to also focus on that, to make that a more attractive option. For people that want to go into that profession, but also people who want to work elsewhere and have their kids can have facilities available to them so that the parents can work. You know, we deal with a lot of important issues in DC., for sure, but I can’t think of any one that’s more important than this, both from the parent standpoint and the child standpoint. Very, very important.

Rep. Joaquin Castro: Well, Sarah, I want to first say thank you so much for hosting us and for all the work that the First Five Years Fund has done for years now. And it’s great to be on with Brian and great to be one of the co-chairs with him in this endeavor. And you know, you’re right. In Congress, as Brian knows, there are just a million different issues that you could focus on.

And you usually end up really focusing on just a few and voting on many other things, obviously. But the reasons for me were both personal and then professional. The professional one first: my brother was mayor in San Antonio when he put to the voters of San Antonio a one-eight cent sales tax increase to fund Pre K programs across the city of San Antonio. And so that program known as Pre-K for SA makes San Antonio, I believe, the largest city in Texas, with the most pre-K offerings and the most pre-K students enrolled.

And then, just personally, my wife and I have 3 kids, and even though for a few years now she has stayed home with them, we also at times have paid for child care, and I know how expensive it is for families. And how much the cost has gone up over the years, which has made it tougher, particularly in the last few years. That’s the reason that I started it [the Caucus] several years ago with Democrats and Republicans, and the reason that I continue to be involved.

Question Number Two 

Rittling (First Five Years Fund): The two of you actually have teamed up on a funding request specific to early learning: The Preschool Development Grant Birth through 5 program, which we commonly refer to as PDG B-5 (rolls right off the tongue). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the program, it’s really an infrastructure program, helping states build much needed systems that talk to each other, create some efficiencies and streamline things at the state level. Rep. Castro, can you share a little bit more with us about the importance of the program, and why you’ve chosen to lead, particularly on the funding side with your partner here.

Rep. Castro: The PDG B-5 grants are, and monies are, incredibly important for the states for a few reasons. As you said, it’s essential to the infrastructure of child care in Texas. And we’re a state government, to put it kindly, that has been very stingy at times in the kinds of public services that we fund, and other services that we fund. And so the federal government being involved in helping on that has been incredibly important. But then, secondly, the aspect of training that’s involved for child care workers, and the ability to use the monies for those purposes, has been incredibly important so that child care workers are best able to help kids learn at such an early age. 

So it’s not only having a place for kids to be, but making sure that, while they’re there, they’re getting the best care possible, and hopefully also learning something as well.

Rep. Fitzpatrick: As far as PDG B-5 goes: Look no further than the fact that every single governor in America has sought to avail themselves of these funds. Incredibly important. It goes specifically to infrastructure, but also workforce development. You know every single governor, every mayor, they want a robust workforce, and in order to have a robust workforce you have to have adequate and affordable Pre-Kand child care. There’s no way around that. So it’s no surprise that every single Governor has sought to avail themselves of these funds. 

I could tell you in my home state of Pennsylvania, this has been a very, very heralded program, one that the Governor Josh Shapiro has spoken up a lot about, you know, his support for this program, which we’re very thankful for.

Question Number Three

Rittling: On that note. With every governor having sought funds to support their programs, the two of you here sharing a bipartisan caucus, the issue is historically one that is bipartisan, and unfortunately, the window that many people have on DC isn’t as bipartisan. So it’s always wonderful to showcase an area that is [bipartisan] that people probably don’t realize as much from where they sit out in America, and would love to hear your take, Congressman Fitzpatrick, since you are Mister Bipartisan in problem solving of all things. Why is it that this issue [child care and early learning] seems to bring everybody together?

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA): If kids don’t bring people together, I don’t know what will. And you know everybody, no matter what party they affiliate with, anybody who has kids who’s in the workforce has to deal with this issue. Costs are becoming very, very expensive, in many cases, prohibitive.

And that’s a real problem. You know, we talk about both child care and health care. When costs become prohibitive, it’s more than just a service level problem. It has a ripple effect across a lot of different other areas, and if you can’t afford to have a place to bring your child to, then you can’t work. And if you can’t work, you’re gonna have a hard time affording daily living expenses. And it also hurts industries across the board who can’t fully staff their operations. So it’s one of those Genesis issues that you really have to invest money in; if you don’t it has a ripple effect across a lot of different different areas.

Rep. Castro: You know what we found over the years is that child care is one of the biggest demands that we hear from constituents, especially when I was in the state legislature. (I served ten years in the State Legislature before coming over to Congress.) People scramble to try to figure out how they were going to place their child in child care, and oftentimes more and more now, how they’re going to afford it. And that’s true, really, almost anywhere you go in the United States. In so-called red districts or blue districts, people really are scrambling and trying to figure out how to pay for child care. And so expanding it, making it affordable and expanding pre-K as well: Those are all important issues, really regardless of a political party.

And fortunately child care to me is one of those issues in Congress that to some degree has been above partisanship along with veterans issues, for example, and other issues, a few other issues. And so that’s been a good thing in terms of trying to get things done.

Question Number Four

Rittling: What’s the one thing you wish more of your colleagues knew about child care and Pre-K?

Rep. Castro: Yeah, I would say the cost and how much the cost has gone up in many places. The cost of child care is almost the cost of renting a one bedroom condo in Washington, DC.

I mean, it has gone up incredibly, or even in some places [the cost of] making a mortgage payment. And so the cost has been very high, and without some of these monies and programs, those costs would have to be borne by the families alone. Or they might even be higher.

Rep. Fitzpatrick: And in addition to the cost, the science of childhood development, and the science of social development and emotional development. This is provable. That the more you invest in a child in their formative years, in social development and in mental development, the outcomes are markedly different than children who do not have that exposure and that experience. 

And it’s the easiest case to make, as to why, you know, for a lot of people that complain about investing in these items, what the cost of not doing it is. Not only is it the right thing to do from a moral imperative, but also across the board from an economic perspective and across the board for developing a solid workforce. And you know, educational outcomes are better, workforce outcomes are better. There’s a direct linear correlation between investing in early childhood education and daycare and those experiences, and how they fare in life.

Question Number Five

Rittling: I’m going make it a two part question,so we don’t go beyond our five questions.

Part one is, is there a caretaker in your life, either yours or your children, or your nieces and nephews, that’s made an impact on how you see this issue? 

And two. What gives you hope? And we’ll start with you, Congressman Fitzpatrick.

Rep. Fitzpatrick: Well, my mom would be the most impactful she was able to stay home. That was in a different time. Different generation. She’s 89 years old now, thankful to still have her with us.

But you know, things have changed now that not many parents are able to do that and are not able to stay at home. So you know, once again that’s a blessing. But for the parents who are not able to do that it’s exhibited as to why these programs are so important. 

Why am I hopeful? We live in the greatest country in the world, despite all of our challenges and struggles. Everybody still wants to come here.Nobody’s looking to move to China, or Russia, or Iran, or North Korea. Everybody wants to come to the United States, and there’s a reason for that. So you know, we have the ability to figure these things out as long as there’s cooperation, which is why it’s so important that this task force, this Caucus, is very bipartisan.

Rep. Castro: Yeah, I would say my grandmother was incredibly impactful for me. You know my parents were together till I was 8, but my grandmother lived with us in the house until I went away for college, and my grandmother really stopped working when my brother and I were born mostly so that she could take care of us and you know. 

And so she was, I mean, aside from my parents, obviously the most influential person in my life, growing up and sacrificed so much to take care of my brother and I. And her being there allowed my parents –, of course, my mom was single parent after the age of 8 – but to be able to go and work and do everything she needed do to provide for us and to support us. And so she was a child care provider for us.

And then in terms of what gives me hope. Well, conversations like this, the fact that it’s a bipartisan issue that we’re able – in  what is a very hyper partisan environment in Congress on some issues –  to rise above that. And so I’m hopeful that in this session, and in the coming years, that we’ll be able to make some great headway for the American people on child care, and also Pre. K.

Sarah Rittling: Well, thank you so much for every single thing that you do on the issue, and more. I teed this conversation up and said you were Congressional champions. But after today, I hope everybody sees you aren’t just champions. You’re actual downright experts on the issue –  from the brain science to the cost, to the reasons why. And we’re really fortunate to have you in Congress doing this. So I express my gratitude from the entire early learning community, and certainly from the First Five Years Fund.

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