My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. The first person to graduate from college in my family, my Gran received her teaching degree and certification from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Over the following twenty-four years, she paused only for the birth of her own children, and then retired to take care of her grandchildren.
For my cousins, brother, and I, she was our first babysitter and caretaker. My first, most important lessons I learned at her feet: how to share, how to play, how to show kindness for others. In many ways my fascination with, and career in, education policy has been due to her. When I was 14, I volunteered to teach 2- and 3-year-olds at vacation bible school at my church because Gran said it would give me a good idea of what it would be like in a classroom. I had intended to follow her footsteps into education as I entered college.
But when I told her that I would be working in early childhood education policy at my new job here at the Next100, I could hear her scowl over the phone.
“Levi, those babies belong at home with their mothers,” she said. “Not with the government.”
It is surprising when anyone pushes back on expanding high-quality early childhood opportunities, be they infant care, child care, preschool, or Head Start. Early childhood is widely recognized as a bipartisan issue with broad support. In 2015, First Five Years Fund found that 91 percent of voters agree that a positive early childhood education experience lays the foundation for all the years of education that follow. States from New York to Oklahoma have taken steps to expand and improve state-funded child care and preschool. That support comes from a diverse set of constituencies with distinct (and, at times, conflicting) intentions, but in a world of polarization and partisanship, early childhood as an issue is generally seen as an exception to the rule.
It is on the forefront of the progressive movement, a nearly unparalleled opportunity for communities to invest in this generation’s workforce and the next generation’s leaders.
For me and for many others, expanding high-quality early childhood opportunities is more than a commonsense, bipartisan policy inevitability—and it certainly isn’t about keeping babies away from their mothers. It is on the forefront of the progressive movement, a nearly unparalleled opportunity for communities to invest in this generation’s workforce and the next generation’s leaders. Progressive policy is policy that seeks to give every family in America a fair shot. Children have the right to receive a good education and high-quality care at every step in their development. Parents have the right to enter the workforce when it makes sense for them. And families should have the peace of mind that all these programs will lead to the best possible outcomes.
The Current Child Care Crisis
Nearly everyone—Republicans and Democrats, North and South—recognizes that there’s an incredible return on investment in high-quality early childhood opportunities. And they think so regardless of the intention, whether the goal is strengthening the current American workforce or preparing our nation’s next generation of leaders. But again and again we fail to make that investment, or when we do, we do it in a way that is either tenuous or does not ensure quality. Meanwhile, on the world stage, that failure to adequately invest stands out ever more: the United States lags behind most other developed nations in public investments in children under 5.
Because of the lack of public investment, child care can be wildly expensive. The average annual cost of center-based child care for infants is more than the average cost of public four-year college tuition and fees in most states. If the cost of—and, more often than not, debt incurred from—attending college is already a financially crippling proposition, then the prospect of starting a family looks grim indeed. For folks in my generation, millennials, we’re still paying off student loans for that tuition and those fees. We can’t afford another expense like that.
So parents are often forced to put their kids in child care of dubious quality because they can’t afford anything else—that is, if their community has any high-quality options on offer to begin with. What’s more, even with the money and the options, most people simply don’t know what a quality program should look like. And the disparity in that quality is wild. Only about 10 percent of child care programs in the nation are considered “high-quality,” and only about 11 percent are accredited. Child care quality is uneven at best, discriminatory at worst.
The data is there, showing an impressive rate of return. The need is there, in terms of cost and quality. But child care is not getting the attention it deserves as a deeply progressive issue that particularly impacts women, communities of color, low-income communities, and millennials.
The data is there, showing an impressive rate of return. The need is there, in terms of cost and quality. But child care is not getting the attention it deserves as a deeply progressive issue.
The Progressive Case
Expanding high-quality child care can be used as a lever to ensure equity for women and communities of color—for parents as well as for workers. Existing gaps in access to high quality early childhood prevent women from entering the workforce. And the gaps in child care quality disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color, with black families in particular receiving the lowest quality care and fewer eligible Hispanic, American Indian and Alaskan native, and Asian children receiving federal funding than the national average of 13 percent. And for the child care workforce, the folks caring for our children for hours each day, which is made up almost exclusively of women and disproportionately of women of color, wages are incredibly low. By holding child care programs and preschool to clear standards and paying child care and preschool teachers more, we can help to ensure high-quality programs for families so that parents can go back to work when it is right for them, and child care workers can have the quality of life they deserve.
Policies that expand high-quality child care will necessarily expand opportunity, too, both for the children participating in the programs and the parents that place their children in those programs. Head Start, a federal program that provides comprehensive family services across the nation, has been shown to have a parade of benefits for its children participants: it increases participants’ likelihood of attending college by 6 percent, lowers the likelihood a given student has of becoming a teen parent, and lowers the likelihood of a student being in poor health in their early 20s. Over half of parents say that child care issues have caused them to miss work, have to leave work early, or arrive to work late. Mothers in particular are likely to feel the pressure to leave their careers before they want to because of child care restrictions. Freeing every American from this restriction from opportunity should be a fundamental tenet of the progressive movement.
Expanding access to early childhood care will ensure that high-quality child care is inclusive, reaching nearly every American family in every walk of life. Child care costs and quality are not just issues for low-income communities, or just for working-class communities. Over half of parents across all income brackets said it was difficult to find affordable, high-quality child care in their communities; and half of families reported having difficulty finding care, regardless of quality. Universal child care and preschools of quality can be used as a mechanism to benefit Americans across the nation, regardless of their income level or zip code.
Supporting Every Family and Every Child
Investing in high-quality early childhood development opportunities presents an unprecedented opportunity to expand equity, improve opportunity, and ensure inclusivity across the nation. If we are serious about giving every American family a chance—a fighting chance—at the American dream, we must address the current early childhood care crisis with progressive policies that expand high-quality care for all American families.