Childcare in Roanoke: Educational Inequity

Rafael Velez
Star City Workers Club
September 24, 2021

It is a myth, and a pervasive one at that, to believe that every person living in the United States will be given an equal opportunity. Americans claim to uphold the value of equality of opportunity, that regardless of where somebody is born, they should have access to the same kinds of quality services and opportunities as somebody else. However, as any working-class person can tell you, this is evidently not the case; there exists an extreme inequality between the opportunities afforded to the wealthy versus those of us in the working class. This inequality is exacerbated for communities of color. Roanoke’s economic inequality is so drastic that this area ranks in the bottom 10 of 2,478 localities in terms of the opportunities for poor children to improve their socio-economic status.

Today’s Biggest Expense for Working Class Parents: Early Childcare

One instance of this inequality can be found in the opportunities for families to access early childhood care. By early childhood care, I’m referring to care or schooling for babies up through age four. Most countries in the world consider the right to education to be a fundamental human right. Why then does the United States, the richest country on the planet, not guarantee children a right to education until they turn five years old? 

For most Roanoke families, the first opportunity for their children to attend a free public school is when they begin kindergarten at age 5. Some schools offer limited spaces for 4-year-olds to attend pre-kindergarten. For children younger than that age, families will either have to hire a private childcare provider, enroll their children in a private (usually for-profit) daycare center, or have a family member stay home to be the childcare provider. Simply finding a daycare provider can be a massive ordeal, and it can also be prohibitively lengthy and expensive. Most daycare centers have long waiting lists that require an application fee anywhere from $25 to $100 per child. If a working-class family intends to apply to many locations to better their chances of being accepted into a daycare center, those fees will add up quickly.

When my wife and I started looking for childcare for our two daughters, ages 2 1/2  years-old and 7 months-old at the time, we ended up placing them in a daycare center that was recommended to us by a friend. In order to place them both in that daycare center, it would cost us around $1,200 per month for both children to have care five days a week. While this was cheaper than what we would be paying if we lived in a city with a higher cost-of-living, it was still our family’s largest single expense by far. We didn’t think that the particular center that we chose was the nicest, largest, or the best quality of care, but it was close to our house, had the hours that we needed, and had a decently-sized outdoor area near the greenway. Some of the centers that we didn’t choose were slightly cheaper, but the quality of care was deeply concerning to us. One put two classes of children into a classroom designed for one class, with a strange half partition dividing the room. Others only provided care for a few hours of the day, which wouldn’t meet our needs as working parents. 

Segregation in Our Early Childcare Access

It has been my experience that the quality of the daycare centers in Roanoke vary greatly in quality depending on the area of the city that you’re in, and the relative wealth, and racial demographics of that area. Roanoke has been found to be the most segregated metropolitan area in Virginia. Because of continued de-facto school segregation black and brown students are denied opportunities for advanced classes, are nearly twice as likely to receive disproportionate and unfair discipline (like suspension and expulsion), and are, on-average, 1.7 grade levels behind academically. The Learning Policy Center has found that attending a high-quality preschool is correlated strongly with students’ future academic success. In the Salem and Cave Springs areas (both technically a part of Roanoke County, not Roanoke City), which are predominantly white and wealthier areas, there are beautiful and spacious daycare centers and preschools with large playgrounds and parks nearby. There are two centers in poorer neighborhoods that stick out in my mind. The first is on US 220, near Southern Hills; it is a branch of a chain of daycare centers in the middle of a parking lot. There are a few trees, but otherwise the center is surrounded by concrete and cars. I have never seen children playing outside, and I imagine that it’s probably for the better; if the choice is to remain indoors all day or to be exposed to toxic air pollution from the heavy traffic driving by all day, it makes sense to choose staying indoors. In California, elementary and secondary schools are prohibited from being constructed within 500 feet of high-use freeways, specifically to avoid the harmful long-term effects of air pollution. Unfortunately, statistics show that black and brown children are systematically vulnerable to pollution.

There is an enormous gap in wealth between the ultra-rich and the average working-class family, and it is exceedingly difficult for somebody who is not born into a wealthy family to ever work their way into wealth. That being said, the lack of opportunities is not just a question of which groups have more money, but rather it is a question of who gets access to public services (such as healthcare and education), and what the quality of those services will be. What choices do working families have in a situation like this? They could pay the exorbitant cost in order for their children to have care in an unhealthy environment while the parents work, or one parent could choose to not work, or they have an extended family member provide the care. The burden of childcare has historically fallen upon women, which limits their ability to participate in the economy. With rising costs of rent, this is often not feasible; since wages have stagnated and living wage is not guaranteed by law, it is no longer possible for most working families with children to survive on a single income. Wealthy families are not burdened with this decision because they will have the ability to pay for private nannies or expensive day care centers.

As parents we will do anything we can to help our children. Forcing working families to place their children in substandard, unhealthy conditions for the day is cruel. There is no justification for the inequity that exists. The capitalist class has decided that for-profit “educational” corporations’ ability to make money should be valued over the wellbeing of children and families. However, it does not have to be this way. Socialist countries like Cuba, have focused their efforts on providing high-quality pre-school education as a human right. Cuba’s government has invested a massive amount of resources into its early childhood centers because it places a high value on child healthy child development. Because of this 99.5% of Cuban children are able to attend a free, high-quality, public preschool. These numbers put the United States to shame; in this country, only 38% of three-year-olds, and only 67% of four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-schools. In another former socialist country, the German Democratic Republic (commonly known as East Germany), families were able to access free high-quality childcare for children starting as young as six months of age. This was due, in part, to their strong belief in women’s liberation. It is also important to note that new mothers in that country were guaranteed paid leave for up to a year after childbirth, a right that women in the United States do not have. Too often, because of the financial strain, working-class women have to return to work within weeks after giving birth. This is an unjust fate to force upon working-class women and families. This is why high quality schools and daycare should be guaranteed as a human right to all, regardless of class.

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