Biden’s finishing what Obama started with early learning
President Biden’s child care and universal preschool proposals have received a lot of attention, much of it focused on whether the proposals will survive negotiations in the Senate around what to maintain in the Build Back Better Act, the President’s “human infrastructure” bill.
What has attracted less attention is how the policy design represents a distillation of some of the best thinking on how to create universal preschool and a child care entitlement that guarantees nearly every family access to affordable, accessible, high-quality early learning opportunities.
These are not new ideas. In fact, aspects of these programs were proposed during the Obama administration. But Biden’s plan offers a vision for early learning that is at once reminiscent and markedly different than the early learning proposals set forth by President Obama nearly 10 years ago. The differences are important because they reflect an improvement in early childhood policy and represent an acknowledgment of what parents, providers and other stakeholders have been advocating.
For example, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, Obama proposed to work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every four-year-old child in America. In his 2014 budget, which provided the details on the proposal, Obama outlined a new Preschool for All program, which would create a new federal-state partnership to provide all four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families with high-quality, publicly-funded preschool. In contrast, Biden’s plan would cover all three- and four-year-olds with no eligibility limitation based on income.
In addition, Obama would have placed the preschool program at the Department of Education. Here, the differences are important. Biden has proposed that both his preschool and child care programs be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS has robust subject matter expertise in early childhood development and a long history of administering early learning programs, given the agency’s oversight over both the Head Start and federal child care assistance programs. HHS also has a system of regional administrative support through the Administration on Children and Families that would guide the states’ implementation of new or enhanced early learning programs. While the Department of Education has shown leadership around early learning, as it did during the Obama administration, the agency lacks the administrative support to implement robust new early learning programs.
While the Obama administration would have relied upon the K-12 administrative infrastructure to implement the program (e.g., sending money to the states that would, in turn, provide grants to school districts), Biden’s plan would build upon the network of providers that exist in local communities. The Build Back Better plan would require that preschool be offered through a system of mixed delivery, meaning that preschool could be offered through local public schools, licensed child care providers (including home-based settings), faith-based settings, or Head Start programs. This approach avoids the destabilizing effect that the introduction of preschool can have on providers who are already caring for preschool-aged children. It also honors and recognizes the people who are already carrying out this work.
Obama’s preschool plan initially did not include new investments to support increased access to high-quality care for infants and toddlers. What we better understand now is that if states offer universal preschool without a plan to invest in infants and toddlers, the supply of care for our youngest children can decrease significantly and become even more unaffordable for families.
Biden’s plan anticipates and addresses this problem by providing robust investments for child care for young children under age six. As the president’s child care program is implemented, more and more families would gain access each year to a guarantee of support to afford care, with their contributions to the cost of care capped at 7 percent of their income. Once the program is fully implemented, the families of nearly 10 million children would be eligible. This would reflect a more than 10-fold increase in the number of young children who are supported through federal child care assistance.
Apart from the substance, Biden has introduced these plans at the beginning of his administration, when he has the most political capital to move his agenda. And he has pressed nearly every Cabinet member focused on domestic policy to urge passage of these investments. In contrast, the early learning proposals in the Obama administration were proposed during the second term, before a divided Congress.
So, if not now, when? When will events conspire again to create the political conditions for these types of investment? Judging by history, it could easily be a generation or more before Congress reconsiders comprehensive early childhood legislation. In the intervening time, parents will continue to struggle to find and afford child care. Labor force participation, particularly among women, will continue to suffer. Early educators will continue to subsidize the child care system by earning near-poverty level wages. Millions of children will continue to enter kindergarten less prepared than those who had the benefit of a high-quality early learning experience.
Congressional action is necessary. State governments cannot afford to invest heavily in new systems of early learning without robust, sustained federal funding. Parents cannot afford to pay more for care. Providers cannot afford to make any less. The country cannot afford to maintain the system as it is.
Mario Cardona is the chief of Policy and Practice at Child Care Aware of America and served as the Senior Policy advisor for Elementary and Secondary Education on President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council.