Last March, the Learning Policy Institute released a set of recommendations for “building a national early childhood education system that works.” The report and its recommendations are excellent, but they are utterly disconnected from the deplorable reality depicted in press reports last week on the status of child care as we enter another season of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here is the Learning Policy Institute: “Evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that experiences from birth to age 5 are critical to children’s development. Yet despite the long-term benefits of early childhood education, many children lack access to integrated, inclusive early learning experiences before kindergarten. Where children do have access to early learning, public investment in program quality is variable and insufficient. Early educators—the key to a successful program—are required to hold widely varying qualifications and are extremely underpaid. Finally, policymakers have often taken an incoherent approach to the governance and administration of early childhood education programs.”
Here are merely some of the Learning Policy Institute’s recommendations for ensuring that child care and preschool programs are of high quality: “require and provide funding to meet higher levels of quality in subsidized child are programs; require that federally supported preschool programs meet minimum quality standards; improve early educator compensation; provide financial and academic support to new and current educators as they move up the career ladder; support institutions of higher education in developing strong Early Childhood Education preparation programs; and ensure access to coaching and other embedded supports…”
The kind of enriched child care envisioned by experts at the Learning Policy Institute does not exist, however, for most American families, particularly as problems have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week the Washington Post‘s Heather Long reported: “The numbers are staggering: The child-care services industry is still down 126,700 workers—more than a 10 percent decline from pre-pandemic levels, Labor Department data shows. While many industries complain they can’t find enough workers, the hiring situation is more dire in child-care than in restaurants right now. Young women in their late teens and 20s who are typically drawn to work at the day care centers are opting instead to take jobs as administrative assistants, retail clerks, and bank tellers… Veteran child-care workers are quitting… More than 10,000 workers have left the industry since June…. ”
And for the NY Times, last week Claire Cain Miller provided examples from across the country: “At a Y.M.C.A. in San Antonio, 200 children are on wait lists for child care because of hiring problems. It raised average hourly pay for full-time workers to $12.50 from $10, but still can’t recruit enough teachers to meet the demand. In Ann Arbor, Mich., the school district had announced it was shutting down its after-school program. It managed to hire people to open at five of 20 elementary schools, those most in need, but that left out at least 1,000 children. And in Portland, Ore., preschool spots are few and far between, and elementary schools are running after-school care at limited capacity or have canceled programs altogether… Child care providers face challenges like those in many other service industries that are unable to find enough workers—low pay and little job stability. The median hourly pay is $12, and 98 percent of occupations pay more… Turnover is high in early childhood education, and jobs caring for school-aged children are only a few hours a day and often end in the summer… Some people are hesitant to work with unvaccinated children.”
Actually it is surprising to see major coverage of child care problems in the nation’s two biggest newspapers. The coverage last week was most likely a response to a new report released from the Department of the Treasury, published to push the child care investments—which President Biden has proposed and which Congress is currently debating—as part of the federal budget reconciliation package. The Treasury Department’s new report describes the problem clearly and concisely: “The child care sector is a crucial and underfunded part of the American economy. One in every 110 U.S. workers—and one in every 55 working women—makes a living in early childhood education and care. Parents of young children devote a sizeable share of their total income to child care. Children benefit enormously from high quality early childhood settings that nurture and support healthy development, all the while laying the foundation for future success by supporting early learning skills. An extensive body of research describes large potential economic returns to investments in early childhood education and care for preschool children, especially for children from less advantaged families… This report describes the existing child care system in the United States, which relies on private financing to provide care for most children, and documents how this system fails to adequately serve many families.”
The Department of the Treasury continues: “Currently, the average family with at least one child under age 5 would need to devote about 13 percent of family income to pay for child care, a number that is unaffordable for most families… Notwithstanding the high costs borne by parents, margins for child care providers are low and many struggle to make ends meet. They survive by keeping costs low. Labor, the main input, is overwhelmingly provided by women, many of whom are nonwhite, who earn low wages leading to high turnover. Many child care workers are paid so little that they rely on public services for their own economic needs.”
The report reminds readers: “The President proposes to increase funding in the sector by offering universal preschool to all 3-and 4-year old children and providing access to high-quality child care for low-and middle-income children. His child care plan will cut spending in half for most American families so that families do not have to spend more than 7 percent of their income on child-care for young children….”
The first disconnect between press reports and the optimal child care conditions prescribed by the Learning Policy Institute and the Department of the Treasury is that academic and even financial experts grasp that child care is part of the continuum of early learning. Much of the general public—and this is reflected in press reports—defines child care exclusively as babysitting—custodial care and supervision necessary to enable parents to work. We ought to recognize that defining child care as mere babysitting reflects the conventional wisdom and that our failure to recognize early learning programs for what they are is itself is a good part of the problem. If it were understood that these adults are early childhood educators and not mere babysitters, would our society accept such a paltry level of pay for child care workers or accept that in many places child care workers are required to have little training and few qualifications?
The other enormous problem exposed by the current child care crisis is the underlying sexism and racism in child care and early childhood education. This is a sector that exploits America’s poorest women, many of them women of color, by paying the lowest possible wages, in many cases failing to provide training and mentoring, and neglecting to provide health coverage or access to retirement benefits.
My worry is that a primary cultural adjustment will be a necessary part of the reform of our nation’s shameful system of early education and child care. I give President Biden credit for pushing us all to examine our current failure to support families with an economically viable system of child care and early education and for forcing us to look at our failure to value the women who provide this urgently important work.