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How to Make Smart Investments in the Early Care and Education System

For the first time in half a century, federal policymakers are seriously considering significant investments in, and structural changes to, our nation’s early care and education system. These long-overdue developments simultaneously impact two generations: they allow parents to work and provide for their family and support children’s educational and lifelong success. They would also be transformative for our country, as our economy and society grow stronger when families have access to affordable, high-quality early care and education programs in their communities.

There could be no better investment than in our nation’s early care and education programs, especially as we recover from the pandemic and get our economy back on track. Yet, successful public policy considerations are almost always more complex than they first appear. Recently, historic investments in the child care system from the COVID-19 relief packages have helped set the stage for reframing how we can best support our nation’s working families and child care businesses.

Policymakers have an opportunity to build on the lessons learned over the last year and make long-lasting changes to improve our nation’s early care and education system. Doing so will require a holistic approach. Recognizing the fact that children are learning at all times and in all places, below are four recommendations that policymakers should consider when contemplating expanding early care and education programs at the federal level.

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  1. To support parent choice, early care and education programs must be offered in a variety of community-based settings including in centers, family child care homes, and faith-based providers.

  2. To reduce duplication, inconsistencies, and overlap any federal funding should be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, in coordination and collaboration with other federal agencies wherever appropriate.

  3. To ensure programs support the needs of working families, policymakers must pair funding with local flexibility and innovation.

  4. To ensure an adequate supply of care, especially for infants and toddlers, investments must recognize and support the child care business model.

Several proposals have been introduced in Congress that would change the way the system functions and is financed. President Biden’s American Families Plan proposed expanding our nation’s public K-12 education system by four years, specifically including universal Pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds. Separately, the plan would invest in our nation’s child care system by providing funds to make child care more affordable, support higher quality, and invest in the child care workforce. The role of Head Start and in serving our nation’s most vulnerable children is unclear. Without a more clear delineation, the nation stands a chance of having three separate and competing programs all providing early care and education for three- and four-year olds.

While BPC appreciates the concurrent investments to the child care system, it is concerned that creating a new universal Pre-K program outside of the existing early care and education system would have several negative consequences on parents and the child care industry.

The child care system is already in a precarious position. The demand for child care greatly outpaces the supply, creating a significant gap in the availability of high-quality and affordable options for parents. Child care often costs more than parents can afford, so to fill capacity, many programs charge tuition based on what parents can pay—not on the true cost of providing high-quality services. And because providing care for infants and toddlers requires more adult staff, it is more expensive to offer and more costly for parents. Businesses help offset the losses from operating infant and toddler classrooms by serving more preschool aged children. This means that many providers have more space for preschool children and less space for infants or toddlers. With a federal push for universal free, Pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, many parents might be drawn to a Pre-K program which in turn may cause child care providers to close their doors because they simply cannot make ends meet with income from infants and toddlers only.

Policymakers should look at improving and expanding our existing early care and education system, including community-based services for preschool-aged children. This approach would reduce costs for parents, increase resources for child care businesses, and enable continuity for children birth through five in the same setting their parents have chosen. By integrating the goals of universal Pre-K into the nation’s child care system, policymakers will also uphold the goal of equitable resources for all families, rather than bifurcated, separate systems. But creating an entirely new program outside of the existing system is not the answer to many of the pre-existing structural inefficiencies and financial shortcomings that prevent the ecosystem from working most effectively.

Through efforts such as the Early Head Start Child Care partnerships, and the Preschool Development Grants, the federal government has been working to better integrate federal early childhood programs, including with state Pre-K programs. These could serve as models moving forward. For instance, the Preschool Development Grant – Birth through Five grants are designed to help states coordinate and align their existing programs within the state’s mixed delivery system. Early Head Start – Child Care Partnerships combine successful aspects of Head Start programs with child care providers, to support higher quality while retaining flexibility for local innovation and meeting the needs of working parents.

Expanding Pre-K solely through the public school system as the American Families Plan proposes will not be a panacea for children and families. If our country is to truly support working parents and their children’s healthy development, we must implement policies that better synchronize the entire early care and education system so that it works better for all involved. Existing federal programs—namely the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Head Start programs—need more investments and better coordination and collaboration.

Instead of creating new programs that serve a duplicative purpose, policymakers should focus efforts on improving the availability and quality of existing early care and education programs—including through center- and faith-based programs, family child care providers, and Head Start programs. That is the best way to support our nation’s working families.

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