Two years ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to make significant investments in pre-K for four-year-olds as well as other early learning programs serving children and families birth-to-school entry. This year he focused on the country’s youngest children and their families’ need for high-quality child care.
The President announced a plan that would triple the maximum child care and dependent tax credit to up to $3,000 per child for middle-class families with a household income of up to $120,000. This tax credit increase could be beneficial for many parents struggling to afford the cost of child care, which often tops the cost of public university tuition. (This is not that surprising, though, due to the small staff-to-child ratios needed and special attention required for caring for infants.) The President explained the need in last Tuesday’s address stating, “In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high quality childcare more than ever.” He also highlighted a point in our nation’s history, between 1943 and 1946, where child care was universal, facilitating the growth of a robust economy.
But increasing the child care tax credit alone does nothing to improve families’ access to "high-quality" care. One possible way to help address this could be to tie the receipt of the tax credit to the quality of the center. In other words, to be eligible for the credit, families could be required to enroll their child in a child care facility that is rated as a high quality center by their state’s quality rating and improvement system or at the very least be licensed by the state.
But the child care tax credit isn’t all the President proposed. Last Wednesday, during his speech at the University of Kansas, he continued his call to address the needs of working families, stating that doing so is essential to growing the economy. The President announced two additional pieces of his three-part comprehensive child care plan with the goal of increasing the availability of affordable, high-quality child care. He would also significantly expand the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a child care subsidy for low- and moderate-income families authorized under the Child Care Block Development Grant (CCDBG) Act. (CCDBG was reauthorized last year after 18 years.) By 2025, the proposed expansion would increase the reach of CCDF to an additional one million children, under four-years-old. Not only would this expansion aim to make child care more accessible, but it would also attempt to help raise the quality of care by requiring states to submit “sound” plans for ensuring the quality of providers.
In Beyond Subprime Learning, we call for using the Pell Grant model to increase child care access. The President’s proposal has the similar goal of increasing the federal investment to help ensure more low-and-moderate income families with infants and toddlers have a subsidy to help them afford child care.
Not all child care provides high quality settings for children to learn and develop. In fact, many do not provide stimulating environments. So while it is absolutely true that working families need affordable child care options, they also need peace of mind that wherever they choose to leave their child is at the very least a safe and nurturing place. The newly reauthorized CCDBG does take important steps in this direction, but it’s still a long way from “high quality” for all children from low-income families.
The last part of the President’s proposal, in typical Obama Administration-style, is a competitive grant that would promote innovation in the child care system. The proposed grants-- totaling $100 million-- would allow states to create pilot programs to determine the best ways to provide child care to vulnerable populations, including children with disabilities, parents who work non-traditional hours, and families who have difficulty finding high-quality child care. This, again, is sorely needed, but using the term “high-quality” isn’t enough. Investment at both the state and federal level is needed to help improve child care centers and the quality and capacity of the early education and care workforce.
The President’s three-pronged child care proposal is one component of the Administration’s broader early education agenda, which also includes:
- Preschool for All (the plan President Obama proposed in his 2013 State of the Union address) and the seeds for the Strong Start Act and the Preschool Development Grants, which received funding in the FY2014 budget. The first awards were announced in December. Read more about them here.
- Early Head Start and Child Care Partnerships
- Year-round and full-day Head Start, which will be proposed in the President’s FY 2016 budget, expected on February 2.
- Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program- the President’s budget is expected to also renew and expand this program, which is set to expire in March.