Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) stands on a 160-square-foot, life-sized Chutes and Ladders board on the Capitol lawn, getting ready to take his fourth spin of the wheel.
A few press flaks and staffers dot the edges of the board, wearing slim-fitted suits, Ray-Bans shielding them from the D.C. sun. The over-size tarp rests about 50 yards from the nearest shade, providing maximum lighting to the photographers trying to catch the politician in all his pro-child glory.
But the bright sun also means that the thirty-plus infants and toddlers who lack UV-protective sunglasses can’t see where they’re going. One photographer accidentally steps on an infant crawling on the board. Mom is forgiving, though.
Her son will survive the pain. What he can’t survive, according to the assembled lawmakers and activists from Moms Rising and the National Women’s Law Center, is one more minute not spent in day care.
Don’t let the hula-hoops and board game and presence of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) fool you. This is serious business. Lives are at stake. The chutes of the board are covered in factoids about the Armageddon that awaits daycare-deprived children.
"Only 1 out of 6 children whose families are eligible for help with childcare costs receive it," one chute says.
More than 50,000 children will be cut from subsidized daycare thanks to sequestration-mandated budget cuts, the activists say. Lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), who arrives late to the rally fresh from passing the Childcare Development Block Grant through the Senate Health, Education, and Pensions Committee, are trying to stop that from happening.
"If kids don’t have quality early childhood education programs, they’re behind," Harkin bellows from atop a chute on square 22. "The costs to society are immense."
Harkin pledges to move forward with President Barack Obama’s call for a $75 billion universal pre-K program "that’s not just for four year olds, I’m talking infants and toddlers."
Three officials from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents more than 90,000 daycare educators, applaud vigorously.
Gillibrand adds that children need to know their letters and numbers before reaching kindergarten.
"These are skills only attained through quality early education," she says.
I can barely breathe. While these kids are posing for photos with lawmakers, and getting trampled by photogs, my daughter is sitting at home with my wife, who didn’t major in education. How is my daughter going to learn to count to ten? How will she know which comes first, x, y, or z? She. Is. Behind.
I approach the AFT members, the ones wearing blue t-shirts that say "A Union of Professionals."
"Our members provide more than childcare," one says. "It’s not just babysitting."
"It’s education," another says.
That education is on display right now. Gillibrand kneels on the board as caretakers from Martha’s Table tell their three year olds to recite numbers and colors.
The Table’s 14th street facility houses 120 kids in 11 classes from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to Jasmine Fontaine, 24, the caretaker sitting cross-legged by Gillibrand. Parents who don’t want to see their children left behind mentally can leave them behind physically, at just three months old, with Fontaine, a Guatemalan immigrant studying to be an accountant.
What are these infants learning, I ask.
"We help develop morals," she says.
Fontaine’s surely a better teacher in this respect than Sen. Mazie "Quit the Team" Hirono (D., Hawaii) or Rep. Rosa "Skip the Chute" DeLauro (D., Conn.), and Rep. George "Steal the Ladder" Miller (D., Calif.), the only lawmakers on hand for the rally’s 10 a.m. start time.
Rep. DeLauro kicks off the ceremonies.
"You don’t have to hear from me, you only have to watch these kids," she says.
I take her advice and concentrate on preparing for the Chutes and Ladders game of a lifetime. I’m not the only one who’s excited. Rep. Miller kneels at the start line telling four-month-old Iris and her mother that he’s "never won a game of Chutes and Ladders" before.
Organizers divide us into teams. Parents rush forward, depositing their kids onto Team Hirono, Team DeLauro, and Team Miller. Miller handles the spinner.
Rep. DeLauro gets off to an early lead. Miller spins her a six, enabling her to climb a ladder extolling the virtues of daycare. She and her army of children are halfway to victory.
Sen. Hirono and her troupe move four spaces up, while Miller’s cries of "give me some magic" net him a five. He hands off the spinner to a mother from the crowd and advances, reluctant children in tow.
"Who wants to be on Team McMorris?" I ask.
The crowd seems confused.
"A journalist?" Miller says. "These kids are getting a total education today, they’re learning treachery."
The new spinner takes pity and gets me a three.
The lawmakers take one more spin before Sen. Hirono grabs a microphone.
"This Ladder and Chutes game is a metaphor," she says, before literally abandoning her team.
A few children from Team Hirono split off to Team DeLauro and Team Miller, ignoring Team Journalist. Most wander off the board.
DeLauro and Miller take Hirono’s message to heart. If the game is merely a metaphor, cheating is fine. DeLauro ignores the fact that chutes are supposed to send players down the board. Team Miller spins a five and decides to ascend a ladder three paces up rather than finish his move.
"We saw a ladder of opportunity and we took it," he says to the befuddled congresswoman.
Team Journalist’s come-from-behind rally soon ends. The five-spin that put me at DeLauro’s heels lands me on a chute, which I fall down, back to square four.
But I can’t move yet. Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz is in my way. She finishes up and I begin my walk of shame.
"Step into the winner’s circle," Miller tells his teammates. The Democratic National Committee chairwoman provides him the distraction he needs to jump three spaces ahead without spinning.
He wins his first Chutes and Ladders game. I hang my head in shame.
"We don’t need any more studies," Rep. DeLauro says of the questionable efficacy of daycare programs, adding that kids without access to early childhood education will be "lost forever."
That may be an overstatement. Former Assistant Education Secretary Chester E. Finn has found that "the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school."
Clara Paynter, a family therapist in attendance with her 18-month-old son Cassady, became involved with Moms Rising because she saw too many "checked out" teens at her practice in Silver Spring, Md. She’s a big supporter of daycare, but also says that "having more stable homes" is the best solution to the problems afflicting the nation’s youth.
"Parents play the biggest role," she tells me.
Even if they aren’t professionals.