With the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better package of education, health care, workforce and other social benefits passing the House and headed to the Senate, the U.S. stands poised to make a seismic improvement in increasing access to early childhood education.
“I dont think it’s hyperbolic to say this would be a game-changer in early education,” says Albert Wat, senior policy director of Alliance for Early Success. “If this passes, this would be a major chapter in the history book of early education.”
Of course, any significant federal investment would be noteworthy for a service long considered a blight on the country’s education system. When it comes to early education – both child care and pre-kindergarten – the U.S. is dwarfed by the types of services and access other industrialized countries provide for families.
In fact, out of 41 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranked fourth to last in the percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, according to a report released last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Only Costa Rica, Switzerland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia trail the U.S., which has an enrollment rate of 65%. More than half of the countries in the analysis enroll upward of 90% of their 3- to 5-year-olds.
But in the U.S., more than half of families live in so-called child care deserts, lacking access to high-quality early education programs that research shows have a long-term impact on student achievement, including by closing academic and social and emotional achievement gaps, lowering rates of special education placement and increasing graduation rates.
Although access to publicly funded preschool has increased in recent years, only 44% of children aged 4 years and 17% of those aged 3 years enroll in state pre-kindergarten, Head Start or other programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Perhaps most pressing: Just 18% of children from low-income families – those who often start kindergarten behind their peers and stand to benefit the most from early education – are enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs. Those who do have access are often enrolled in lower-quality programs.
And beyond academics, child care and preschool have proven essential to a thriving economy – something the country saw first-hand when the pandemic shuttered child care centers and pre-kindergarten programs across the country, forced millions of mothers out of the workforce and shined a spotlight on the country’s fractured early education system.
But all that could soon change if Congress sends the social spending package to the president’s desk. The House approved the package Friday, and the Senate – where the package faces steeper hurdles – is eyeing a vote before the holidays.
Though Republicans in Congress have characterized the package as a “spending spree” – or worse, a “death knell to prosperity and opportunity in our country” – the issue of increasing access to child care and preschool has long garnered bipartisan support.
In fact, Republican-led states in the South have made some of the most progress on the issue in the country. Even in the face of the pandemic, Alabama secured an additional $6 million increase in pre-K funding and Florida increased pre-K funding for the 2020-2021 school year by $9.9 million.
“To this point, our country has never really had a coherent approach to early childhood education,” Wat says. “We don’t invest in it to cover even those who we think should be eligible for child care or pre-K. We vacillate between viewing early care in education as a work support versus early learning or early childhood development. And because they are both in this bill in a pretty significant way – both pre-K and child care – this is really an opportunity for the country, for states to build a more coherent 0 to 5 system that’s more equitable, that works better for kids, families, providers and educators.”
As it stands, the package includes $400 billion for both child care and pre-kindergarten, which policy experts say underscores the importance of the two systems working in tandem.
The lion’s share of the aid would be directed to child care, with $100 billion spanning the first three years of the program. And then from fiscal 2025 through fiscal 2027, the federal government would reimburse states at 90% of what it costs to provide child care. States that opt to receive the federal funding must spend half of it directly on child care services and a quarter of it on improving the quality and supply of child care. The remaining funds are flexible and can be used to cover the costs of child care services, improve quality of care or go toward improvements in facilities and administration of child care programs.
States must also commit to, at a minimum, providing a living wage for child care workers and establishing wages equivalent to elementary educators with equivalent credentials.
Meanwhile, $18 billion would be available over the first three years to states that wish to establish or expand their pre-kindergarten offerings for 4- and 5-year-olds who are not yet in kindergarten. Beginning in fiscal 2025, states that participate in the pre-kindergarten program would be required to provide a 10% match, which increases over three years to a 40% match by fiscal 2027.
While the funding is aimed at providing “universal” pre-kindergarten – meaning every 4- and 5-year-old would be eligible, regardless of income status – states must prioritize communities and ZIP codes where there is the highest unmet need for early education programs. Notably, the federal aid must build on – not replace – other federal, state and local funds already in place for early childhood care and education programs and must be used to support what early education experts call a “mixed delivery system,” which allows families to choose between various types of programs, including those run by school districts, for example, or those organized by Head Start or even a home-based program.
Unlike K-12 education, how states provide access to child care and pre-kindergarten – if they do at all – varies widely, with some states opting to run the programs through school districts that then offer the services themselves or contract them out, and others delivering grants directly to private providers or leaning primarily on Head Start.
“How the funds get administered and how they are used will vary state to state, as education in general does,” says Ellen Frede, senior co-director at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University and professor at the Graduate School of Education. “If you really care about this system working, it needs to be a mixed delivery system and a thoughtful one.”
Frede would know – she oversaw the implementation of the pre-kindergarten program in New Jersey, which currently serves 3- and 4-year-olds in 35 of the state’s highest poverty school districts – about 25% of the districts in the state.
Frede says the way states choose to use their funds – if they opt into the programs – will largely depend on what type of services and access they already provide. Oklahoma, for example, offers a half-day program for 4-year-olds, but at the moment they only serve 3-year-olds with disabilities. Florida oversees a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, but one that’s known for its low standards. And it subsidizes only about $2,000 per child. Meanwhile, Wyoming doesn’t have a pre-kindergarten program.
As it stands, the District of Columbia operates the most universal pre-kindergarten program in the country, with almost 80% of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled.
To be sure, such a large amount of funding comes with concerns, too – chief among them, a state’s capacity to oversee the addition of such services and how to ensure that the pipeline of new teachers is highly qualified while also preserving and building on the diversity of a workforce that already reflects the children they serve more accurately than the K-12 system.
“Places need to take the time to figure these things out because otherwise we’re not going to meet the promise of changing children’s educational trajectory, which is what the purpose of this funding is,” Frede says.