Federal Policies to Support High-Quality Early Learning

There might only be a two-year window to translate early education goals into legislative victories
Blog Post
Feb. 1, 2021

Early education and care didn’t receive a whole lot of federal attention during the four years of the Trump administration. That situation has changed, however, with President Biden in the White House and slim Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Because the president’s party typically loses congressional seats in midterm elections, there might only be a two-year window to translate early education goals into legislative victories.

Last February, New America’s Early and Elementary Education Policy program published Supporting Early Learning in America: Policies for a New Decade. In this report, we made several recommendations and suggested specific actions to help make high-quality early education a reality for all young children in America. Many of the policy recommendations in the report, such as ensuring a seamless transition between early education and elementary school, are primarily the responsibility of state and local policymakers in addition to school staff. There are, however, several steps the federal government can take in the next few years to support early learning. Below I highlight a few key priorities Congress and the Biden administration should consider as they work to ensure high-quality early education throughout the country.

Invest in the Construction, Renovation, and Expansion of Facilities

The nation is experiencing a steady decline in the number of child care centers and family child care providers, leading to a lack of access in many areas of the country. Facilities that do exist may be inadequate and unsafe. Additional funding for the construction of new facilities and maintenance and safety improvements of existing child care facilities and elementary schools are necessary both to increase the supply of early care and education and ensure the health and safety of children and staff. Rural areas should be prioritized by the federal government for new facility construction as these areas are especially vulnerable to a lack of child care options.

There are already several bills from the last congressional session that would help address the need for investment in facilities. For example, in July the House passed the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion plan to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. The bill includes a five-year, $10 billion grant program to upgrade child care facilities. These funds would be distributed to states to be used for acquiring, constructing, renovating, or improving child care facilities, including reconfiguring facilities in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Prioritize Financial Support for the Child Care Industry

Our report was published just before the pandemic upended the finances of the child care industry. The last several months have highlighted the important role child care providers play in ensuring parents are able to get back to work and help rebuild the economy. While December’s relief bill included $10 billion in funding for the industry, more help is needed to ensure the country has an adequate supply of child care providers in the future. As part of his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, President Biden has proposed the creation of a $25 billion emergency stabilization fund to help providers in danger of closing as well as an additional $15 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant to help more families with low incomes afford care. Congress should pass the rescue plan quickly to start getting this much-needed assistance out the door to providers and families. The assistance should focus not only on helping providers survive the pandemic financially, but also on providing the resources necessary for ensuring quality care and instruction in the years to come.

Don’t Forget About Universal Pre-K

As we pointed out earlier, public pre-K for three- and four-year-olds enables parents of young children to return to the workforce. A study of DC’s universal pre-K program showed that it has resulted in more mothers in the workforce, which is particularly important given this recession’s outsized impact on women. High-quality pre-K also has important benefits for children -- it provides them with valuable skills to succeed in school and beyond. This is critical given that we still don’t know the developmental effects of the reduced amount of social interaction and other forms of trauma many young children are experiencing due to the pandemic.

During his campaign, Biden proposed providing high-quality pre-K to three- and four-year-olds by working with states to create a publicly funded mixed-delivery system that would include public schools, child care centers, family child care, and Head Start programs. While we don’t yet know the exact details of the pre-K plan the Biden administration will pursue, the goal should be to eventually realize universal access for all three- and four-year-olds, which could be achieved even if parents with higher incomes are required to pay part of the cost of attendance.

Pay Attention to Kindergarten and the Early Elementary Grades

To give children the best possible path to success in the later grades, it is important to shine a light on teaching and learning in kindergarten and the early grades. Kindergarten enrollment is down nationwide in response to the pandemic, depriving students of valuable early learning opportunities and ensuring budget difficulties for schools and districts in the years ahead. Now is an opportune time to rethink kindergarten and invest in strategies to ensure that kindergarten students are receiving instruction that is high-quality as well as age-appropriate.

One way to make this happen is by establishing a federal grant program for states or districts to promote quality and innovation in kindergarten. Federal grants could focus on quality and prioritize states or districts that are ready and willing to transform kindergarten by implementing promising practices around curricula, instructional strategies, transitions, classroom environment, and professional development.

The priorities listed above are just a few that the Biden administration should consider in the years ahead. Other important priorities include increasing teacher diversity, investing in two-generation strategies to engage families, and ensuring federal cross-agency collaboration between the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. The possibility that the 2022 midterm elections could result in a shift in power in at least one of Congress’s two chambers means the time to act to improve early learning and care is now.

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