How universal pre-k and child care would limit families' child care options

How universal pre-k and child care would limit families' child care options
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Is the progressive dream of universal pre-kindergarten and child care about to come true?

The $3.5 trillion spending package now before Congress includes $450 billion for government-sponsored pre-k and child care. The plan would subsidize preschool for three- and four-year-olds and cap the amount families pay for child care at no more than 7 percent of their income.

If that seems like a lot of money, it is — especially because some empirical studies have shown that these programs produce no long-run benefits for children, and also because many parents have no interest in enrolling their kids in them. Worse, the legislation includes myriad regulations that would reduce the number of child care and pre-k options parents prefer. 

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How does that happen? The federal government would set the rules for what it means to be a “quality” child care or preschool provider, and only government-approved providers would be eligible for the subsidies. This would put small, independent providers at a huge disadvantage. 

Many small, family care providers that can’t afford to comply with an avalanche of government regulations will continue to disappear. The sharp decrease in the number of affordable, family-based child care providers over the last two decades is partly due to the regulatory burden of professional licensing imposed on them. Excessive regulation also increases startup costs, discouraging good caretakers from entering the market. The result: fewer desirable options for parents.

One crucial, and largely ignored, provision of the legislation requires preschool seats to be “distributed equitably among childcare (including family child care), Head Start and schools” within each state. Therefore, if demand for any one of these three options exceeds one third of students in the state, there will predictably be shortages in the types of providers parents desire.

For example, if a state currently has more pre-k seats in schools relative to the other two categories, then the state committee charged with awarding licenses would have to prioritize applications from Head Start centers, even though that is not what parents want.

If that weren’t bad enough, compliance with federal standards also requires that all lead preschool teachers have bachelor’s degrees. At first glance, more formal education sounds beneficial. But the best evidence suggests there is no difference in the quality of child care provided by people with more than a high school diploma. This would be like requiring everyone who opened a restaurant to have a degree in food preparation. Maybe the Cheesecake Factory could survive such compliance burdens, but not the neighborhood taco spot.

All of these regulations increase costs for those providing (or hoping to provide) care for young children. The financial costs would be passed on to families (and through the Biden proposal, taxpayers), but there are time costs to would-be providers as well. 

For example, if one wants to become a licensed child care provider in North Carolina, the entire process can take as long as 401 days. The higher costs of compliance will favor bigger providers, and in this case bigger providers tend to mean center-based care. If an entrepreneur or nanny wants to start a small business caring for children, this spending proposal makes it a lot more difficult for them to do that.

One of the most important lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that public schools refused to do the custodial care portion of schooling, let alone the educating portion. So why would we give the government more control over child care at even earlier ages?

A 2021 survey from the Institute for Family Studies shows that 70 percent of mothers with a child under the age of 18 prefer child care to come from a parent or relative. In the same survey, only 14 percent preferred a center-based child care provider.

Families that need help getting child care don’t need multi-billion-dollar programs. They would be better served by simple changes to existing programs. For example, funding for the federal Head Start program should go directly to parents, with parents empowered to spend that money on the best care option for their children.

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The current regulatory burden on providers must be reduced, not increased. And families should be able to keep more of their own money through lower taxes, enabling them to pay for early childhood education and care that fits their needs.

Ultimately, the universal pre-k and child care behemoth now under consideration would reduce options for parents, relegating them to the types of providers they like the least. The best way to serve families’ child care needs is to make it as easy as possible for entrepreneurs and innovators to give families what they want.

John Schoof is research associate and project coordinator in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.