What’s Possible When Child Care Is Funded As a Public Good

While Congress determines how much money to invest in child care, families across the country face the challenge of seeking any kind of care for their children. Waiting lists are long, and even if parents are able to obtain care, finding a place they feel comfortable leaving their children is another hurdle.

Research shows that quality early learning experiences set the stage for future success in school and stronger life outcomes. What is the difference in quality care? We invite you to consider two different stories of child care:

Rebecca enters her daughter’s child care setting with her nine-month-old daughter Laura. The busy caregiver tells Rebecca to put the baby in a crib. Neither Rebecca nor Laura recognize this new caregiver. Rebecca looks for a toy to put in the crib with her baby. All of the toys are broken or meant for older children. She decides not to put anything in with the baby. A small screen just outside the crib plays a children’s video and Laura is momentarily distracted, but then turns her gaze back to her mother. A two-year-old wanders over and grabs for Laura through the bars of the crib. Laura begins to wail. Rebecca wants to wait until a familiar caregiver appears, but she can’t be late for work and leaves, on the verge of tears herself.

Now, a different child care experience:

Luis enters his daughter’s child care setting with his nine-month-old daughter Alma. A familiar caregiver greets them by name as she takes Alma into a soft-body baby carrier that is already strapped around her, waiting for Alma’s arrival. Alma whimpers with the transfer and then the caregiver invites dad and Alma to sit with her and three other children on the floor, looking directly into Alma’s eyes and using a sing-song voice. Luis says he has to go or he will be late for work. A two-year-old hands Alma a bottle containing colorful beads and says, “Daddy come back.” The caregiver again looks into Alma’s eyes and then to her father and back, and repeats the child’s statement, “Yes, your daddy will come back to pick you up later.” Alma smiles. The caregiver then asks Luis if tomorrow he might come a few minutes earlier to have time to read a short picture book so the baby can get used to the routine at separation time. Luis smiles and says, “I will really try.”

Investing in child care as a public good can make the second story possible for all families in America.

As Janet Yellen noted recently, “the free market works well in many different sectors, but child care is not one of them. It does not work for the caregivers. It does not work for the parents. It does not work for the kids. And because it does not work for them, it does not work for the country.”

She describes child care as a textbook example of a broken market, adding “It’s past time that we treat child care as what it is — an element whose contribution to economic growth is as essential as infrastructure or energy.”

The nation’s lack of public investment in child care leads to high prices for families, exceedingly low pay for child care providers, and an overall lack of funding that makes high-quality child care difficult to provide. This is in stark contrast to other countries — for example, France invests about $7,000 per child from infancy to 5 years old, the United States invests just $2,400.

America has made the decision not to invest in quality care. But it does not have to be this way, and changing our approach does not have to be incremental.

Bank Street gathered thought leaders from throughout the early childhood policy space to envision the possibilities for a different system and to imagine what could be possible if early care and education were treated like a public good. We believe:

  • All families could have access to child care similar to what Luis and Alma experienced, above, through an early childhood benefit that allowed them to choose from a combination of paid leave, early care and education, and wraparound support.
  • Early childhood education would be a well-paid, well-respected profession, one that was accompanied with professional support and opportunities for meaningful, ongoing learning.
  • Families and child care providers could have a meaningful voice in shaping their experiences.
  • Local communities could provide universal access to care and wraparound supports tailored to the specific needs of their families for easy and equitable access.
  • A national family policy could ensure all federal agencies commit to every family’s well-being, coordinating systems across agency silos.

These ideas are all within our reach, if politicians understand the value of the investment and policymakers act with intention. The time is now. We can work together to make this a reality.

This piece is the second 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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