Investing in America’s Bright Future: Early Care and Education as a Public Good

Imagine a world where new parents welcome an infant into their family and have the space and support to form a secure relationship with their child, free from stress and worry. Imagine that, when ready to return to work, parents or caregivers can easily enroll their child in a center or family child care home of their choosing, with no concern for expense. Imagine that child care teachers are well-trained, equitably compensated professionals who are supported in their work to form secure and responsive bonds with the children and families they serve.

This world can exist if we design and fund early care and education as a public good to support the well-being of all children, families, and society as a whole. Many other nations already do this — and a growing number of Americans support more robust investments in early care and education. A recent survey by the First Five Years Fund revealed that 84 percent of American voters say high-quality, affordable child care for families with young children is an essential service, similar to K-12 education.

Research shows: early care and education is a crucial investment for society as a whole, not only families with young children. Early care and education is a public good and can — and should — be funded as such, similar to the ways in which taxpayers fund transportation infrastructure or emergency responders. To meet the unique needs of families with young children, the U.S. could establish a national program that guarantees all families have access to a continuum of early care and education services in the first five years of a child’s life.

Access to high-quality child care not only enables parents and caregivers to return to work but also builds the foundation for future learning and development of children themselves. Investment in high-quality early care and education leads to greater academic success and improved overall life outcomes, such as increased earnings, improved health, stronger families, and reduced crime rates. Current brain science reveals why quality child care has such a profound impact — more than one million new neural connections form every second in the first several years of life.

Additionally, the pandemic has revealed how crucial child care is to economic recovery. Almost one in three women ages 25–44 who have left the workforce during the pandemic cite child care demands. Approximately one-fifth of the unemployed workforce without college degrees name care responsibilities as a factor in not returning to work.

Finally, investments in early care and education support an equitable and more just society. Currently, half of the child care workforce relies on public assistance, with 86 percent making less than $15 per hour, and only 15 percent receiving employer-sponsored health insurance. Investing in teacher pay and benefits can reduce persistent turnover thereby creating more stable learning environments for children. It also addresses a longstanding equity issue, as the child care workforce is made up almost entirely of women, 40 percent of whom are people of color.

We now have an unparalleled opportunity to establish child care as a public good, particularly as federal funding and recovery dollars flow to states. A coordinated policy approach across state and federal agencies can move us away from a disparate system made up of programs spread across private and public sectors. With a new national approach that values the economic security and well-being of all American families, children would experience a consistent early care and education system that is responsive to their needs and reinforces their potential for success.

Imagine what would happen if all families enjoyed an early childhood benefit that allowed them to choose from a combination of comprehensive paid leave and early care and education. Through strategic leadership and collaboration, this vision can become a reality. We do not need to only imagine.

This piece is the first of three articles on reenvisioning our nation’s early care and education system. Check back here for more from Learning Starts At Birth as we dive into design principles to help transform the current system into one which truly establishes early care and education as the public good that it is.

To learn more, explore our new brief titled Establishing Early Care & Education As a Public Good.

By Brandy Jones Lawrence, Senior Director of Policy & Partnerships, Learning Starts at Birth, Bank Street College of Education, and Emily Sharrock, Associate Vice President, Bank Street Education Center

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Bank Street College of Education

Bank Street College of Education

Bank Street’s systems and policy work disrupts educational inequity, collaborating deeply with stakeholders at all levels. Join our discussion. Lead the change.