Expanding Access to High-Quality Child Care for Infants and Toddlers

Blog Post
Feb. 22, 2016

Good child care is a need for all families across the country. Increasingly, it is becoming a larger portion of families expenses: in the District of Columbia, for example, 88 percent of the average single parent’s income would go to center-based infant care as reported by the Washington Post. For low-income families, earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, high-quality child care that provides enriched learning environments is rarely within their reach, especially for infants and toddlers.

Earlier this month, Senator Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Representative Joseph Crowley (D-NY), and Representative Lois Frankel (D-FL) introduced the Child Care Access to Resources for Early-learning Act (Child C.A.R.E. Act) to provide more dedicated child care funding for infants and toddlers and improve the quality of programs serving children under the age of four. The bill calls for efforts to strengthen the skills, competencies, and compensation of the workforce to be aligned with the National Academy of Sciences report, “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8”.

By amending the Social Security Act, this bill would steadily increase the mandatory funding in the Child Care and Development Fund each year (see chart below). Right now, a large portion of the child care subsidy dollars states receive are in flux every year because of the federal appropriations process. And, what gets appropriated doesn’t come close to meeting the child care needs for all eligible families in every state.

The C.A.R.E. Act would allow states to expand access to child care with the goal of reaching universal access to high-quality programs by 2026 for eligible families, particularly focusing on eligible families who have not received subsidies already from the Child Care and Development Block Grant funds. States would apply for C.A.R.E. Act funds as a supplement to their Child Care and Development Block Grant plan. In the supplemental plan, states would explain how they would increase the number of slots for eligible families by the end of fiscal year 2026 as well as include measurable benchmarks to indicate an increase in statewide child care quality.

The bill would support states in taking a number of key steps toward high-quality care by requiring states to conduct a study on the cost of high-quality child care for infants and toddlers at least once every three years. This study would have two key purposes: 1) to determine if provider payment rates within the state are sufficient to help ensure fair and competitive compensation for infant and child care providers and to recognize child care providers with specialized early childhood knowledge and competencies; and 2) to determine the compensation levels necessary to attract, support, and retain high-quality early childhood educators.  The idea would be for states to use the study results to establish, and then annually update reimbursement rates to keep pace with inflation.

Additionally, in their applications, states would be required to describe how they would coordinate family support services, align programs serving families prenatal through kindergarten entry and engage families in their child’s early care and learning. The Act’s goal here is to  support the most at-risk learners across all of the early childhood years through the coordination of comprehensive services to support children with various needs, such as children suffering from poverty, kids with special needs, homeless children, or dual language learners.

While the bill, has a strong focus on infants and toddlers, it does not ignore the later years. States must also explain the “best practices” they would use to support early childhood educators, including K-3 teachers, to improve transitions in kindergarten and to align standards, curricula, and professional development. As my colleagues, Laura Bornfreund and Lisa Guernsey, stated in an earlier post on pre-K, the exposure to high quality learning experiences in the early years of a child’s life are essential to later academic and social success across the birth through third grade continuum. It is good to see that the proposed legislation requires a plan to help connect and coordinate learning and development in the infant and toddler years, pre-K, and early elementary schooling.

Importantly, the Child C.A.R.E. Act would make investments in child care for infants and toddlers not only as a work support for parents, but also as a way to foster children’s development through increased exposure to high-quality learning experiences, which closely aligns with research showing that the first few years of life are the most critical time for brain development. Although this bill is unlikely to go anywhere during this Congressional session, it is an important proposal to spur more thinking about innovative ways that policies can better support young children’s learning and development. A substantial, stable funding stream for accessible and high-quality care is an essential step for supporting children in the first few years of life and laying the foundation necessary for future learning. "