Quality child care is an integral part of our economy, and people seem to agree that there is a need for greater involvement of the business community and for quality teachers for our youngest children.

The expectation, however, falls short of the reality of working families in Maine.

The real question to Maine businesses should be: What direct dollar investment are you making in quality programs in Maine right now?

More than a few large employers in the state could afford to help develop on-site or near-site child care centers and also provide living wages for child care employees.

In 2004, University of North Carolina professor Rachel Willis surveyed 925 employees at three light-manufacturing firms — two that offer on-site child care and one that does not.

Willis found that the two companies offering the on-site benefit saved between one-half and two times the cost of operating the child care centers.

Rachel Connelly of Bowdoin College has come up with similar results.

But businesses in Maine continue to place the burden of cost on the shoulders of working parents. After all, their corporate profits rely on the productivity of their workers and minimizing the cost of employee benefits.

We need to insist that business start shouldering a fair share of the cost of early care. Right now, parents are expected to pay 90 percent of the cost of child care.

That means that families in Maine struggle with the $15,000 a year that it costs for quality care for an infant or toddler. Imagine telling parents that they had to start paying 90 percent of the $8,000 to $10,000 per year that it costs to send their child to public school.

Yet that is exactly what we do in the preschool years, unless families are poor enough to qualify for a Head Start program — which has never served more than 40 percent of eligible 3-year-olds because of, as one correctly might guess, lack of funding. Gov. Paul LePage has even gone on record as saying that one area he would tap to pay for his proposal to abolish Maine’s income tax would be the state share of Head Start.

Large employers have it within their means to support high-quality child care centers that pay workers living wages. However, they still find it convenient to extol the virtues of quality care, which places the burden of cost on their workers, and not on their own corporate bottom line. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

There is a role for government spending in supporting quality care. Maine has invested in a universal pre-kindergarten system that provides a minimum 2½ hours per day of programming, but this does little to support the needs of working parents for full-day and full-year child care or for children younger than 4. And, at its worst, it means that very young children are tumbled through myriad before- and after-school programs with little consistency in care.

As for early childhood educators, nothing will improve until we start paying them a living wage and stop extolling the virtues of how dedicated they are working for low pay, subsidizing the system, as women always have, with free or poorly paid labor.

Nothing improved the lot of nurses and public school teachers (two other predominantly female workforces) until they unionized and demanded higher wages and better working conditions. Child care workers on average are paid less than attendants in animal shelters. These educators need to organize and, with parents, say to business: “I can’t work unless my child care works.”

Child care workers need to be awakened to the ongoing exploitation of their labor through a corporate profits system that is supported by their cheap labor and that consistently devalues women’s work and contribution to our economy.

Irving Williams is an adjunct professor of early education at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

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