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Treating Child Care Like Early Learning Means Funding Child Care Like Early Learning

By Albert Wat, Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success

In April, President Biden touted the American Families Plan in his first joint address to Congress. The plan includes an unprecedented level of federal investment for early care and education (ECE): $200 billion to provide pre-k for all three and four-year-olds and another $225 billion to expand access to quality and affordable child care. As of this writing, a legislative package is being developed in Congress that could result in a bill that includes both proposals. After more than a year living under a pandemic that threatened the very existence of an already fragile ECE system, this represents a long-overdue step in the right direction. 

To many in our field, this is the moment to take all that we’ve learned from science and experience, build a cohesive birth-to-five ECE system, and do away with the distinction between “child care” and “pre-k.” After all, kids – babies, toddlers, preschoolers – and their caregivers benefit from high-quality ECE programs, whether they’re called “child care” or “early education” programs. As many tweeted in response to the President’s proposal that evening, “Child care is education!”

Child care and Pre-k
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDU Images

But what would it take to make “child care is education” more than a rally cry, but actual reality? Our national allies, New America and Bipartisan Policy Center, and others have weighed in recently on how we need to invest in the child care system, especially if publicly-funded pre-k continues to expand. I would like to add one item that is not explicitly discussed in their recommendations, and without which “child care is education” will remain mostly conceptual and rhetorical: funding. More specifically, if we’re serious about this, here’s what we need to start talking about:

  • Fund the cost of quality, not the “market rate” (no, not even the 75th percentile of the market rate). Funding for child care should reflect the cost of what it takes to support children’s learning and development, not what the market will bear. Because of our field’s reliance on “the market” to set payment rates, we have a system that works for no one — child care is unaffordable or inaccessible for too many families, early childhood educators are paid subsistence wages, and children are not getting the quality that sets them up for success. And all of this is doubly true for families and providers with low income and from BIPOC and rural communities.
  • Fund a program, not slots. It’s difficult for child care providers to build and sustain a high-quality ECE program when their budget is at the mercy of who can pay or who has access to a subsidy. States can do this by using contracts for individual centers or networks of providers, including family child care programs.
  • Pay providers by their enrollment capacity, not attendance. This was an innovation many states used to stabilize child care programs during the pandemic, and if we want child care to work like education, states should continue this practice. Related to this, payment should be disbursed upfront, not as a reimbursement. When programs receive public funding as reimbursement for services delivered to only children who show up, they’re relying on unstable revenue, which prioritizes balancing the books over child development. Imagine running a kindergarten or first grade classroom like that. We wouldn’t.
  • Pay child care teachers like professionals (and give them benefits, too). The median hourly wage for center-based early childhood educators is about $12. It’s not rocket science that low wages contributes to high-turnover rate in the ECE field, which has been estimated at anywhere from 26 percent to 40 percent Not surprisingly, the turnover rate for infant-toddler teachers is higher than that for Head Start or pre-k teachers. Low wages also create stress for early childhood educators. About half of them rely on some form of public assistance. Given that child development relies on consistent, warm, nurturing relationships between adult and child, high turnover rates and stressed-out staff make it that much more difficult for child care programs to also focus on education.
  • Invest in professional growth pathways. Child care teachers, especially those with low incomes or from BIPOC communities, often experience barriers to traditional higher education pathways for their professional training. We need to invest in scaffolding strategies that have been shown to help them be successful in higher education (e.g., scholarships, cohort models, counseling, online coursework) and alternative pathways like apprenticeships and career-and-technical education.

To be clear, there’s a lot of work to do also on the pre-k side of the equation to bridge the child care and pre-k divide. The release of the American Families Plan is generating a lot questions about what a concerted effort to expand pre-k across the country would mean for the child care sector. Over the last couple of decades, we have learned a lot about what it takes to expand pre-k responsibly so that such efforts strengthen (or at the very least, protect) the broader ECE system. Advocates, agency leaders, and elected officials who are interested in advancing publicly-funded pre-k in their communities and states should consider the following strategies:

  • Develop a pre-k expansion plan within a birth-to-five strategy. By now, we know enough about how pre-k could affect the child care market to develop strategies to prevent these negative consequences. (Let’s stop calling them “unintended.”) Relying solely on the idea that “leading with pre-k” will generate more political support for the broader ECE system won’t cut it anymore. We need to be more intentional. Illinois’ Early Childhood Block Grant and the Multnomah County pre-k model could be templates for how pre-k expansion can also support infant-toddler programs.
  • Make funding more accessible to programs outside of the public school system. The delivery of pre-k in schools and in non-governmental organizations has long been a unique ECE innovation. While most state pre-k systems allow for child care centers to become pre-k providers, they can do more to open up the funding directly to the centers. They can provide more technical assistance to school systems to develop mixed-delivery programs. They can support smaller programs with less capacity for fundraising to apply for pre-k funding. They can also flow pre-k funds through intermediaries in communities that, in turn, create more equitable processes for allocating funding across provider types.
  • Develop collaborations between pre-k and family child care providers. In some ways, this is the next frontier of diverse delivery systems. It is far more common for ECE centers than family child care (FCC) providers to participate in pre-k systems. A more collaborative relationship between pre-k and FCCs can be mutually beneficial. Can we create more flexible policies on program standards, such as teacher qualifications, learning environments, and ages served in a program, that allow pre-k programs to maintain the integrity of their mission and incorporate family child care programs into the system? Can we develop partnerships between pre-k programs and family child care providers that apply lessons from the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships model, which leverages the capacity and resources in Early Head Start to increase funding for and quality of infant-toddler care in child care programs?
  • Fund at least a full school-day of programming and invest in wraparound child care services. We need to stop funding 10-hour-a week-programs, even if they are “high quality.” Low-dosage interventions are not as beneficial to children and they don’t work for working families. A program with all the best “research-based” standards in place is not high-quality if families can’t enroll their children in it.

So can child care also be education? Not unless we remove policies that create barriers to making that statement a reality. To be sure, at the heart of the ECE field are child care teachers who go above and beyond what they are required to do to get professional training, attain higher credentials and degrees, and implement developmentally-appropriate curriculum and experiences that provide effective care and education to young children. All while they’re paid less than a living wage. But the earliest years of our children’s lives are too important for it to rely on superheroes who go above and beyond. If we truly believe that “child care is education” and what we’re after is high-quality early care and education for infants, toddlers, and preschooler alike, then we need to fund child care more like pre-k and public education, and make pre-k systems more inclusive of child care programs.

Whether or not the American Families Plan comes to pass, we are living in an unprecedented moment in ECE history where we have the opportunity and more resources than ever before to rethink how things should work in our ECE system. As Maya Angelou wisely urged us: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Albert Wat is a Senior Policy Director for the Alliance for Early Success, where he leads a portfolio of state and national Alliance partnerships and investments focused on early learning, including pre-k, child care, and the education continuum from birth through third grade. He brings to the Alliance experience in state policies on literacy and social-emotional development, pre-k access and quality, learning standards, assessments, data systems, and alignment between early learning policies and practices and education reform initiatives, especially in the early elementary years.

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