Jan. 24, 2022
Despite strong public support for early childhood programs on both sides of the aisle, the child care and pre-K provisions in Build Back Better have failed to garner support from Senate Republicans. The legislation calls for limiting child care costs to no more than seven percent of income for families earning up to 250 percent of state median income and guarantees access to free pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds in various settings that include public schools, centers, home-based child care providers, and Head Start agencies.
Democrat Senator Joe Manchin has expressed strong support for pre-K but has been less committed to the child care provisions and removed his support for the current iteration of the bill in December. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called the proposal to provide affordable child care a “toddler takeover” and argued that there would be implementation headaches similar to those experienced with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Re-upping common anti-ACA messaging, McConnell stoked fears that parents wouldn’t be able to keep their current early care and education arrangements under Build Back Better and that child care services would become more costly for families, despite the fact that the bill would substantially expand child care assistance.
But there is actually a lot for conservatives to like in the early childhood education provisions included in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Here are four reasons conservatives should support the child care and pre-K plans in Build Back Better:
1. The Build Back Better Act builds on and strengthens the work that states already do for young children in existing child care and pre-K programs.
Passage of the Build Back Better Act won’t bring about a federal takeover of child care and pre-K. Instead, the Act will enable states to improve the quality, availability, and accessibility of the child care and pre-K programs most states are already operating. Currently, each state operates a child care subsidy system funded by the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a federal block grant program. CCDF has strict eligibility guidelines and, only 1 in 9 children under age six who are eligible for assistance actually receive it due to inadequate funding. Build Back Better would establish a new child care program that will allow states to provide high-quality, affordable child care for a majority of families. Estimates show that 93 percent of working families would benefit under Build Back Better.
While the Build Back Better Act provides funds for a new child care program, it does not create a single set of federal standards for all programs. Instead, each state maintains its own program standards. And the Act ensures that government payments to child care businesses cover the costs of meeting all program standards because every child deserves a spot in a high quality program that helps them to thrive.
The Act’s plan for establishing universal pre-K is based on a federal-state partnership that would help states build on their existing pre-K programs. Currently, states spend a combined total of over $9 billion to fund pre-K in the 44 states (plus DC) that operate pre-K programs. The federal funding provided by the Act will enable those 44 states to strengthen their existing pre-K programs and serve more children while helping the six states currently without a pre-K program establish one. It’s worth noting that some of the strongest state pre-K programs are located in traditionally conservative states, including Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program and Mississippi’s Early Learning Collaboratives, both of which meet all 10 of the quality standards benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Alabama and Mississippi currently serve only 34 percent and eight percent four-year-olds, respectively. Neither state serves three-year-olds. Federal funds would allow states to strengthen these programs and serve more children.
2. The Build Back Better Act emphasizes parental choice in both child care and pre-K.
Passage of Build Back Better would mean parents have more choices than ever before in terms of where to enroll their children for child care and pre-K. For child care, the Act makes clear that both center- and home-based child care providers (also referred to as family child care providers) are eligible to participate as long as they’re licensed and participating in their state’s tiered quality measurement systems. For pre-K, the Act specifies that state pre-K programs will operate using a mixed delivery model that includes public schools, home-based child care providers, center-based providers, networks of community- and neighborhood-based providers, and Head Start agencies.
We know that different kids thrive in different settings. Parents would have real choices because child care and pre-K would be affordable or free (see point #3 below). That’s a very different situation than the status quo in America in which parents’ choices for early care and education are severely limited because it’s expensive and difficult to find programs where the quality and hours meet their specific needs. And families will be able to keep their children with the provider they already know and love as long as the provider is licensed and follows program rules.
And while there has been controversy over whether faith-based providers will be able to benefit from the new law, it’s important to note that there is no prohibition against the use of child care subsidies with faith-based settings. In fact, the current iteration of the law clearly states that, “Nothing shall preclude the use of such certificates for sectarian child care services if freely chosen by the parent.” It’s worth noting that, rather than hurting faith-based providers, the Act could actually strengthen these programs, many of which are currently on the brink of closure.
3. A vast majority of families would save money.
Despite some claims that costs would increase for families, there is no evidence that this is true. The average annual cost of center-based child care for infants is more than the average cost of public college tuition and fees in 28 states. Not only would the vast majority of families be eligible for child care assistance under Build Back Better, but all eligible families would be guaranteed to benefit because of how the program is funded.
Take a look at Senator Manchin’s state of West Virginia. The average cost of center-based infant care in West Virginia is $8,029, more than 10 percent of an average family’s income. Recent analysis finds that currently 9 percent of children in West Virginia receive subsidies, but under Build Back Better more than 94 percent of children would receive some level of assistance to cover the cost.
The cost of pre-K can range between $4,400 and $13,100 per year depending on the program. If a family has access to public pre-K for two years, the Biden administration estimates parents would save an average of $13,000 per family. That’s significant cost savings.
4. Accessible, high-quality child care and pre-K are good for local and state economies, both in the short term and the long term.
The current child care crisis is damaging the economy, exacerbating the labor shortage, and hindering parent’s career potential. One study estimates that the current crisis has an “annual cost of $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue.” Challenges with child care create headaches for both parents and employers. Parents’ peace of mind depends on more than just having child care that is affordable; they need care they can rely on to provide their children with a safe and nurturing environment that promotes their healthy development. With reliable care, parents can go to work, improve earnings, and ultimately provide more resources for their children. One study found that universal pre-K in Washington, D.C. had a significant positive impact on labor force participation of mothers with young children.
To be clear, making child care and pre-K affordable and accessible does not take parents out of the home who wish to stay at home; it simply gives viable options for parents who need or want to work outside of the home. The reality is that, whether by choice or necessity, almost 70 percent of children under six are raised in families where all available parents are in the workforce. By drastically reducing the cost of child care, Build Back Better would improve parents’ overall financial stability.
Access to early care and education programs has always mattered, but the need to rethink how we support families with young children is especially glaring two years into the pandemic. It’s time for moderate and conservative policymakers to get on board and ensure that these programs can become a reality for the millions of families living in red, blue, and purple states that need them.
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