Three Big Ideas to Fix Child Care in the Time of COVID and Beyond

Blog Post
Sept. 28, 2020

Earlier this month, the Alliance for Early Success released Build Stronger: A Child Care Policy Roadmap for Transforming Our Nation’s Child Care System, a report based on findings from a workgroup of state early childhood policy advocates and national policy organizations. The report presents an ambitious, but doable path through the pandemic and for the future.

The child care industry has been crushed by COVID-19 because it was fragile to begin with. The cost of providing child care has increased over time, and parents of young children are usually faced with high fees, often paying more for child care each month than they do for housing or college tuition. Only a small percentage of families who are eligible for public child care assistance actually receive it. Profit margins for most child care providers are very thin, and early childhood educators, a large portion of whom are women of color, are left making unlivable wages. Even before disaster struck, public funding for child care was nowhere near the levels needed.

The pandemic is exacerbating problems with the system that we already knew existed. Programs have less revenue coming because of low attendance and are facing higher costs to meet new health and safety guidelines. Without more public funding, many providers have no choice but to close their doors, many permanently. Bold policy reform is needed. As the authors write, “The decisions [policymakers] make today will either take the field back decades or set the stage for a stronger future.”

The “roadmap” is centered around equity and quality and explains how to promote them as mutually reinforcing values instead of competing priorities. It presents comprehensive short and long-term strategies in four broad areas:

  • Increase Access and Affordability for All Families
  • Advance the Early Care and Education Profession
  • Reform Child Care Financing
  • Build a Better Child Care Business Model

The paper offers a range of recommendations, some relevant to surviving COVID-19, and others focused on building a child care system that can thrive for years to come. Here are three big ideas that caught our attention, that we have acknowledged as being important in our own work, and that we plan to dig into more this year:

  1. Treat child care as a public good: Just as a K-12 public education is available to every family, the authors make the case for why early education should be a public good. Public education has arbitrarily started at age five in most states. But a new poll from the First Five Years Fund found that 84 percent of voters “overwhelmingly say high-quality, affordable child care for families with young children is an essential service—just like healthcare and education.” It’s about time policies reflected this.

    Treating child care as a public good will require rethinking how we finance the system. The authors explain that our current system is, “a broken market in which funding is not correlated with cost, supply does not meet demand, and quality and equity are unattainable goals at scale.” We need greater public investment and changes to the way that money is allocated.

    One policy that the authors suggest is to “base child care funding policies on the true cost of care.” This means we need to stop using market rate as a proxy for how much to invest in programs. Right now, child care providers who accept subsidies through the Child Care and Development Block Grant are not reimbursed enough to cover the true cost of quality care and education. The law encourages states to reimburse providers for subsidies at the 75th percentile of the market rate. Not only do most states fail to meet this recommendation, but the market rate is also not an adequate benchmark: “It reflects what families and communities can afford; not what children need,” the authors argue.

    Reimbursing programs sufficiently would encourage more programs to accept subsidies and would allow such programs to pay teachers more. This is just one of many financing policies that could bring us closer to ensuring all children have access to quality child care.
  2. Stop tiptoeing around the issue of compensation: It’s perhaps clearer now than ever before just how much our society relies on the child care sector to function. As essential workers, early educators are long overdue for a significant increase in pay. The authors encourage advocates to stop “ tinkering around the edges” of addressing compensation because it is key to recruiting, developing, and retaining a stronger, more effective workforce. We won’t achieve an equitable and high-quality system until we address early educators’ low pay, lack of benefits, and tough working conditions.

    The paper puts forward multiple policies to increase compensation, including requiring wage parity for early educators and K-12 teachers who have similar qualifications, regardless of setting. It also mentions implementing a living wage and developing a salary scale, among other recommendations.

    Having a stronger, unified voice could help bring these issues to policymaker’s attention. Early childhood educators, the authors explain, “have had, to date, little political power, whether through a self-governing professional board or, with a few exceptions, a union.” Whether by joining professional organizations or unionizing, establishing a unified voice could help them garner political power. And there may be some momentum behind unionization-- earlier this year, family child care providers in California voted to form a union. And Vice President Joe Biden also included the right to collective bargaining in his plan to reform child care.
  3. Focus more on family child care and family, friend, and neighbor providers: Child care policies are often designed without the particular needs of providers in mind. During COVID, more families are showing preference for home-based child care. To support family child care (FCC) providers or family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) care, the roadmap recommends examining “current policies and systems that create barriers for [these providers] to operate or improve and identify policy changes and investments for the future.” For FCC providers this could mean offering access to business coaching or increasing professional learning opportunities. For FFN providers, states should ensure they have access to local resources like nutrition programs or home visiting services and that they have the supplies to provide a safe environment during COVID, whether that’s access to PPE or cleaning supplies.

    These providers play an important role in our child care system, and yet, their numbers have been decreasing for years, leaving families with fewer options. Informal FFN providers can be especially helpful for parents working nontraditional hours or dealing with unpredictable schedules. Going forward, states should be intentional about taking the needs of home-based providers into account when designing policies and allocating funds so that they remain a viable option for families.

The child care industry is collapsing before our eyes and the time to act is now. This roadmap is a valuable resource for advocates and policymakers to use to determine where to focus their energy in the short and long term.

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