Early education has always drawn broad bipartisan support, and amid a pandemic that’s gutted the child care and preschool industries – shuttered centers, driven up costs and forced millions of mothers out of the workforce – the sector is once again attracting a diverse array of endorsements for a major investment from the federal government.
Education policy experts, child care and prekindergarten providers, parents, economists, business leaders, civil rights groups – even retired admirals and generals – are in lockstep agreement: The systems in place for caring for the country’s youngest children have only survived because of an emergency influx of federal aid, and the infrastructure will disintegrate without swift action from Congress to bolster it even further.
“Every data point speaks to a child care field whose collapse has only been delayed by federal relief,” says Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “In the absence of additional investments, more programs will close, more educators will leave and families will pay more. The impact will be catastrophic.”
But during a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans pitched competing legislative proposals for how to do that – one that leans on the universal child care and prekindergarten provisions included in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better package and another that seeks to overhaul an existing federal program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant – and drew bright lines that threatened the bipartisan path forward.
“When it comes to child care – one of the big-budget items most working families have to navigate – the status quo isn’t working at all for the millions of parents who need child care and the providers who need to recruit and retain talented educators,” Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said during the hearing. “And nothing like the status quo is going to cut it.”
Murray and Democrats are pressing their GOP colleagues to support a new $382 billion federal program that would establish a federal-state partnership that states could opt into – or not – to expand existing child care centers and prekindergarten programs and open new ones, increase the salaries of early educators and significantly reduce costs of enrollment for families.
The proposal would retain the diverse delivery system of public, private, non-profit and faith-based programs and would expand eligibility to serve families up to 250% of the state median income.
A growing body of evidence shows the vast economic impact it would have on families – in particular, low-income mothers and mothers of color – and the entire U.S. economy.
A new report from The Century Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank, shows that in addition to creating as many as 850,000 new jobs, the proposal would provide $48 billion in increases to economic output from increased parental employment, $60 billion in gains for businesses and state tax revenue from decreased child care-related disruptions and at least a $30 billion boost to the economy from the expansion of the child care sector and related indirect and induced job increases.
A recent survey from Goldman Sachs found that lack of access to child care is a primary issue holding back small businesses across the U.S. and preventing them from hiring and retaining workers, and found that 80% of small business owners support Congress taking action to increase access to affordable child care.
The investment bank’s analysts called the current state of early education in the U.S. “dysfunctional and broken” in an accompanying report.
“It simply costs more to provide high quality child care than most parents can afford to pay,” the report said. “Since providers can’t charge parents enough to cover the actual costs of a child care business, they operate at razor-thin margins, often unable to pay their staff more than poverty-level wages.”
“Let’s not mince words when it comes to the reality of this crisis,” Murray said. “Our child care system is fundamentally broken. Families are struggling to find and afford child care options that work for them, child care workers are struggling to make ends meet on poverty level wages, child care providers are struggling to stay open, and the tools we currently have simply aren’t up to the job of fixing this.”
But Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking Republican on the committee, accused Democrats of abandoning the committee’s precedent of bipartisan hearings on child care to tout a “terrible partisan bill” that amounts to a progressive pipe dream and “would destroy child care as we know it.”
“Rather than seeking a bipartisan solution, some have tried to impose their progressive vision, which would destroy child care as we know it,” Burr said. “Thankfully, that plan has gone nowhere.”
Burr said the proposal hides long-term costs “by baiting states with free money in the first two or three years, then socking states with ever increasing costs just as the federal spigot cuts off.”
As proposed in the Build Back Better package, the costs would be covered by the federal government for the first three years before the contribution from states would kick in. Burr pointed to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that found that perhaps as many as 30 states would refuse to participate in the program because of the uncertainty surrounding how much funding they would have to shoulder in the future as the federal match decreases and their contributions increase.
Instead, Burr begged Democrats to consider a reauthorization to the Child Care and Development Block Grant – a federal program that provinces aid to states for child care subsidies for low-income families with children under age 13. It’s currently funded at $5.8 billion per year.
“If you have a program with 30 plus years of bipartisan support and a program that has shown it can not only withstand but excel during a pandemic, CCDBG seems a remarkable foundation from which to build,” Burr said. “So, I’m offering an olive branch to my colleagues today, to encourage them to take the bipartisan path.”
Burr, along with Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, is planning to introduce legislation this week that would reauthorize the program and in doing so increase eligibility to 75% of a state’s median income, lower copays so they are no more than 7% of a family’s income and improve reimbursement rates for centers.
Legislative text includes $6.2 billion for fiscal 2022 – a figure that pales in comparison to the roughly $400 billion child care experts, including the one invited by Burr to testify at the hearing, estimate the sector needs to stabilize.
“Without further investment, the country will face a catastrophic decline in access to child care as providers will no longer be able to pay teachers competitive rates or provide tuition relief for families,” said Ellen Williams Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Georgia Child Care Association, which serves 4,400 licensed child care providers in the state.
Reynolds also voiced concerns that the $231 million in federal pandemic aid that helped keep the federal program afloat has not helped states keep pace with inflation.
“This is a prime example of how child care funding has eroded over time,” she said.
Democrats’ biggest criticism of the program is that it currently only reaches 1 in 9 low-income children who are eligible for it – about 15% of those eligible – let alone the tens of millions of families who aren’t eligible for it.
“There’s no question our primary federal child care program – the Child Care [and] Development Block Grant – has helped many families with low incomes get child care,” Murray said. “But there is also no question it is not enough for the task at hand.”
Though the urgency in addressing the issue is shared by both sides of the aisle, the path forward is anything but.
Burr’s sentiments are supported by a majority of Republicans in Congress, including fiscal conservatives who are especially wary of supporting an additional spending package as Russian hostility against Ukraine threatens to drag the U.S. into a new conflict.
And with Democrats holding the slimmest of margins in Congress, they need a unified front, including from moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whose opposition to the Build Back Better package’s overall cost, among other things, sank its prospects.
“Our history is clear, public investments in early childhood education have been modest relative to the need and there is a seismic gap between what we spend as a country and what it will take to give parents real options, create a floor of safety and quality for all families, and create a compensation structure that can attract and retain a diverse qualified workforce,” Allvin says. “We have an opportunity to close that gap.”