Early childhood education in America is on the cusp of an historic overhaul. A law pending in Congress would help support free, universal pre-K for every three- and four-year old in the nation and make child care more affordable for millions of families. It would be the biggest policy change—and investment—in early childhood in decades.
The measure addresses what many experts see as a crisis in early childhood care and education pushed to a breaking point by the pandemic. You’re probably hearing a lot about this crisis these days, but on today’s podcast, we want to step back and look at how we got here—at what the situation means to educators at all levels and for parents, and at what the Biden Administration’s proposals could mean.
EdSurge Podcast Newsletter: Now you can get new episodes of the podcast straight to your inbox. Sign up to receive the EdSurge Podcast newsletter every time new episodes appear, plus you’ll get links to related resources and EdSurge stories.
To help break this down, I connected with Elliot Haspel, author of the 2019 book, “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.” He also has an article out in The Atlantic this week about the latest developments in Washington.
Haspel got into the issue a few years ago when he was working in education policy and kept hearing about how much of education equity comes back to inequities at the earliest ages—even before some kids get to a formal school setting. And he really started to understand that issue when he became a parent himself, and saw the challenges that even well-off parents face.
EdSurge: What is it about the situation in early childhood that makes it such a crisis?
Elliot Haspel: The first is just how far and broad the pain point reaches nowadays. This is not a poor people’s problem. This is something where middle-class and upper-middle-class families are deeply impacted by the inability to find affordable, high-quality childcare.
And it seems like it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic and the economic fallout from that in a big way.
Yes, that’s absolutely right. It’s really blown up the sort of precarious equilibrium that existed in the field. The median wage for childcare workers is about $12 an hour. And so that was what McDonald’s was offering. So at least you could compete. I don’t know if we want the people working with our youngest children to be competing with McDonald’s, but you could.
Now that the McDonalds’ of the world are up at $15 or $16 an hour and unlikely to go back anytime soon, is this going to continue to get worse and worse and worse? We’re seeing programs that have classrooms sitting empty, not because they don’t have spaces and not because there aren’t parents that want the spots, but because they literally can’t find the staff to put in those rooms and to make the ratios that they have to have to meet regulatory requirements.
In your book you talk about the history of how we got here. It seems like there have been other times when there have been political discussions about reforming the system, but it just hasn’t hasn’t happened.
So there were two main times in American history when we’ve had sort of these opportunities to build a more robust child care system.
One was after World War II, when all the men went off to the front lines, women had to enter the workforce. And the Congress passed what was known as the Lanham Act, that basically created publicly funded child care programs. They were actually quite high-quality. And when all the men came back after the war, there was this sort of moment of, well, what are we going to do now? It’s kind of shocking if you go and look up the historical pictures of women and children holding up signs, like, ‘daycare is a right,’ or ‘let women have the choice to work.’ But in the end, the funding was pulled because of this societal idea that mothers of young children should be home with them. As a footnote, [that attitude] did not win the day in places like Europe because the devastation was so great there from the war they actually still needed the women working. So this is where you see a divergence even in the Western world between the American market and European systems.
And then the next chance came in 1971. It was called the Comprehensive Child Development Act and it was passed on a bipartisan basis, And this would have done a lot if what the Biden Administration is now proposing to do. … It was very forward-thinking for its day.
And then it gets the desk of President Nixon. Everyone originally thought he would be fine with it. But he ends up vetoing it. The story goes that it was many of his more religiously conservative advisors, including Pat Buchanan, who really saw this as government intrusion into the family prerogative. This is happening at the same time that the logic of this very free-market, almost libertarian capitalism is coming in. So Nixon vetoed it in very strong language. He talks about how this would cause the federal government’s long shadow into the family.
And it hasn’t literally been until the past two years that we’ve gotten back to talking about the level of investment that would be needed to create a system that’s affordable and accessible for everyone.
The Biden Administration is championing legislation that is moving forward to make big changes to early care. What are some key pieces of that?
So when it comes to early childhood, there are two main aspects. One is universal pre-K. Basically within three years, every state that chooses to opt in will be offering free spots in a pre-K for every four- and three-year-old child. And those slots will be delivered through a combination of school-based programs, Head Start expansions and also the private child care market. Basically think about it as extending the public school model back kind of age three, but delivered in different settings.
Then for the child care pieces of things. So this would be your infants and your toddlers, your private child care programs that don’t do pre-K … states would start to reimburse those programs for the true cost of care … and what that instantly lets them do is raise wages. This will make the field much more competitive and attractive to potential employees.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to the reforms that are being debated right now?
Things look pretty good for the actual bill getting passed. So the next challenge is implementation.
It’s a pretty quick implementation timeline. Three years is actually not that much time. And some of the benefits are coming online much quicker than that. And we’re going to have a lot more kids, presumably, coming into the system who previously couldn’t afford to, so we’re going to need to build up a workforce. We’re going to build up our facilities. We’re going to need to do a lot of work to make this actual rollout as smooth as possible
I have no doubt there’s going to be some kinks. We’re building a system where no system existed. It’s going to be a little messy.
Hear the complete conversation on the EdSurge Podcast episode.