Here at the New America Foundation, we hosted an event last Thursday called “What's Missing in Child Care and Early Education in America?” Amid budget crises, states are cutting back child care and pre-K programs just as the research consensus settles, more than ever, on the crucial importance of early childhood care and education in building literacy, math, social, and emotional skills for the rest of a child’s life. So what are the most important, realistic priorities for improving American child care and early education over the coming years?
Several of the speakers emphasized that those who care about and influence child care policy must look systemically at broader changes in American life around gender norms and the workplace, in order to better coordinate child care models with other systems. Danielle Ewen, director of childcare and early education at CLASP, discussed changes in the composition of American families, with more mothers needing and wanting to work outside the home. Many dual-earner families need child care before 8:00am and after 5:00pm, on weekends, and—in the case of those with shift work—in the evenings, too. Yet the availability of child care and the structure of the child care system have not kept pace with these realities. This point is particularly relevant now during National Work and Family Month, which highlights the need for more workplace flexibility, in part because balancing work and family is most difficult for those with the fewest resources to afford high-quality child care and preschool options.
Former Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Assistant Secretary Joan Lombardi, giving one of her first public talks in the U.S. after transitioning from a well-regarded career in government, described the need for the child care system to reach more children and better coordinate with public schools. In debating and reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress should emphasize some of the same priorities as the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, she said: quality rating systems, accountability systems, and the sharing of best practices between programs. Lombardi also argued that investing in the child care and pre-K systems would create millions of jobs and help revitalize the economy.
Similarly, Barbara Gault from the Institute for Women's Policy Research said that improving child care and early education is “not optional” if we want to decrease poverty. She mentioned the potential for greater cooperation between child care centers and workforce development centers in improving the quality of the early child care workforce and increasing the wages and benefits associated with these jobs. In 2010, the typical child care worker earned just $19,000 annually, which hovers around the poverty line. Gault also argued for locating more child care programs on or nearby community college campuses, since one-third of community college students are parents, and child care responsibilities often contribute to community college students dropping out of school.
Eric Karolak, executive director of the Early Care and Education Consortium said that over the past 10 years, federal and state governments have “hollowed out” the child care delivery system, but that on the ground, there are positive developments around employer-provided childcare and other private and non-profit initiatives. He offered an important caution about adequately funding the move toward greater accountability in early education: “Reform without resources is doomed to not meet the objective we are seeking,” he said. “It won’t do honor to the millions of child care providers…to increase expectations without the resources to make it possible for them to achieve the results we’re all looking for.”
Policy makers should consider that child care and early education policy impacts two generations—both children and their caretakers. And in addition to supporting families, improving the child care system has the potential to create jobs and help adult workers gain important credentials and skills.
To learn more, check out the video of the event.