The US needs a human rights-focused child care agenda

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The current focus on child care both in the public’s view and among policymakers typically centers around the economy and the need to shore up labor force participation among parents of young children. Solutions focus on addressing issues relating to the supply, demand and affordability of care. These are indisputably important and are longstanding and present challenges in our country.  

Areas less discussed, but arguably as important include addressing disparities in compensation and professional learning in the workforce based on race, prioritizing communities who are continually underserved in gaining access to care and attending to the rights and privileges of families as systems of early learning expand, in the same ways we do in public elementary schools for families with English learnersundocumented families and children with disabilities or delays

The truth is that our system of child care has historically overlooked and marginalized people of colorindigenous communitiesrural communitiesshift workersdifferently-abled childreninfants and toddlers and immigrant families

To confront this, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — a civil and human rights coalition constituting more than 200 national organizations — has released principles to guide its advocacy around early care and education. These principles advance concepts rooted in basic human dignity. 

For example, we must reject the continued use of harsh discipline in early childhood settings, which may come in the form of suspension or expulsion. We know that children of color in preschool settings are more likely to bear this harsh discipline — with Black children making up only 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but making up more than 43 percent of out-of-school suspensions. And, shockingly, nearly 1,000 preschool-aged children also experienced corporal punishment. These practices are intolerable and must end.  

Additionally, we must commit to addressing challenges in the design, measurement and funding of quality improvement measures that prevent equitable access to high-quality child care. Roughly half of all infants and toddlers who require non-parental care are served in home-based settings. The majority of those children are in family, friend and neighbor care settings. These providers are typically legally exempt from licensure, and as a result, are often overlooked in the design of and investments in quality standards and systems. The result is that those young children do not benefit from quality improvement activities.    

Further, it is indisputable that child care providers should be treated fairly and in a manner that reflects the value they provide families and communities. This must include greater support for better compensation and benefits. The existing child care system is built on the backs of women. Many child care programs are small businesses and owned by women of color, who have traditionally faced barriers to accessing business credit and other small business supports, and have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. And early educators are underpaid: The median wage in 2020 for those employed in child care centers was $12.24 per hour. These early educators deserve to earn a living wage and enjoy the benefits extended to their counterparts who serve school-aged children. 

Children should have access to high-quality early learning without regard to their characteristics, including their immigration status. Because while the Supreme Court has long held that undocumented children may have unfettered access to public schools, that protection does not extend to our youngest learners who benefit from federal child care assistance. 

And we should grow our commitment to the largest public preschool program in the United States: Head Start. The program has its roots in the civil rights movement and was created as a part of a sweep of legislation to ensure economic security and end racial discrimination. And its structure, which provides not only comprehensive services to children but also maximum community involvement, as well as leadership opportunities for parents, is a model worthy of greater replication. The program also has embedded within it provisions to advance equity — including a prohibition on harsh discipline, a requirement to provide bilingual learning for dual language learners when a critical mass of children share a home language and including children with disabilities across programs. 

It is past time that those of us involved in justice work strive with a common purpose to build a more affordable, accessible, high-quality system of early learning. That effort is inexorably bound to making advancements toward, at minimum, racial justice, gender equity and disability rights. The principles released by the Leadership Conference are an important step, as it guides advocacy on federal activity. The federal government spends nearly double what state and local governments spend, combined, on early learning.  

Access to high-quality, affordable early learning is ultimately access to opportunity. To grow opportunities for families in this country, we must grow child care. It not only ensures economic prosperity by allowing children to thrive in settings that nurture their healthy growth and development, but it also gives families the support they need to allow them to work with peace of mind. These are benefits that inure to children, families and employers, and should be extended to everyone. It is absolutely the right thing to do. 

Mario Cardona is the chief of Policy & Practice at Child Care Aware of America, an organization focused on child care to become a member of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Previously, he served as the senior advisor for Elementary and Secondary Education on President Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.  

Denise Forte is the interim CEO at The Education Trust, an advocate for the high academic achievement of all students, particularly those of color or living in poverty. Forte spent 20 years in progressively senior congressional staff roles, including as the staff director for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (Minority). She served in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Education as principal deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.

Tags Barack Obama Child care Education Education in the United States Educational stages Head Start preschool

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