With costs unclear, Clinton lays out ambitious plans for early education

June 5, 2016

Hillary Clinton speaks about the importance of encouraging cognitive development by talking, singing and reading to infants and toddlers at the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland.

Campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton has unveiled major proposals to transform the nation’s childcare and early education landscape – building on an issue that has been a lifelong concern of hers, as well as one that President Barack Obama attempted to make a centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda.

Facing a hostile Republican Congress, Obama has made little headway on implementing his goal of making government-subsidized preschool available to all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds, though he has achieved progress in early childhood programs including Head Start funding, childcare quality improvements, and support for state preschool programs.

Whether Clinton, were she to win the presidency, would have greater success would depend on a number of factors, including the make-up of Congress following November’s election.

Clinton’s plans are more ambitious than Obama’s; they are also more detailed than those she has put forward for K-12 education. Making preschool available to all 4-year-olds within 10 years is a cornerstone of her plan, but she hasn’t provided specifics as to how it would get paid for. The principal differences between what Clinton and Obama have proposed is that she has also said she would work to boost pay for childcare workers and preschool teachers, and limit childcare costs to 10 percent of a family’s annual income. In addition, Clinton has proposed doubling enrollment in the Early Head Start program for children age 3 and under – currently there are 115,000 children in the program – and expanding programs for home visits to mothers during and after pregnancy, which have been found to improve children’s health and readiness to learn once they start school. 

“We’re really looking at the intersection between access to quality and access to affordability,” said Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s senior policy advisor for early childhood and education.

Early childhood education advocates have been heartened by the attention the former secretary of state and first lady has paid to the issue. But while her proposals are more comprehensive than those of her political rivals, they are still short on key details, particularly regarding cost.

“We know this is going to take significant increases in child care subsidies and tax credits,” is as specific as O’Leary would get in an interview.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has called generally for more affordable childcare and for universal preschool. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made no proposal on this issue.

Other still outstanding details about Clinton’s plan include the number of children or families who would be eligible for subsidized preschool, and what criteria would determine eligibility, though she has said her plans to limit childcare costs were aimed also at middle-income families.

“What Hillary wanted to do was set a broad, audacious goal, and as we go into the summer we are fleshing out more details,” O’Leary said.

One way to gauge the potential cost of Clinton’s proposals is to look at the federal programs that she has proposed doubling in size. Those are Early Head Start, which provides services to children ages 0 to 3 and their families and costs more than $2 billion a year currently, and the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships program, which costs $635 million a year and is designed to leverage Early Head Start practices to increase the quality of childcare programs. There are about 30,000 infants and toddlers in the partnerships program now.

The federal Child Care Development Block Grant, which O’Leary said could be a vehicle for increased funding should Congress appropriate more money for it, totals $2.7 billion this fiscal year. Head Start, which has 824,679 children enrolled this year, has a $9.1 billion budget for the coming fiscal year, including Early Head Start spending. Only 42 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in Head Start preschool, according to the National Head Start Association, and only 4 percent of children eligible for Early Head Start were enrolled in that program.

“What Hillary wanted to do was set a broad, audacious goal, and as we go into the summer we are fleshing out more details,” said Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s senior policy advisor for early childhood and education.

Still to be clarified is whether Clinton’s proposal is intended to provide subsidized preschool to all families regardless of income, or just to those of low- and moderate-income. 

The provision of tax credits and subsidies necessary to roll out a nationwide system cutting across public and private sectors, raising wages, lowering costs, increasing access to services and ensuring quality “would definitely not be simple,” said Lynn Karoly, a senior economist at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

For example, she said, providing publicly funded preschool for all 4-year-olds could “supplant private dollars” now being paid by families who can currently afford private childcare or preschool. That’s not necessarily bad, said Karoly, but it would be a dramatic policy shift – and would almost certainly usher in a major political battle.   

Karoly said another yardstick for estimating what Clinton’s proposals would cost is Oklahoma, which has a program that funds preschool slots for all of the state’s 4-year-olds regardless of income – it served 73 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds in 2015, or 40,085 children. That program last year cost $312 million in combined federal, state and local funding, according to the Oklahoma Department of Education. By his own estimate, Obama’s Preschool for All proposal would have cost $75 billion over 10 years, to be paid for out of increases in cigarette and tobacco taxes. 

O’Leary said Clinton based her proposals on research and reports from sources including: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has determined the threshold of affordability for childcare costs is 10 percent of a family’s income; the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank; Make It Work, an ad-hoc national campaign focused on family and workplace issues; and the Center for American Progress, which last year issued a report that proposed an annual tax credit of up to $14,000 per child to expand access to childcare, but included no overall cost estimate. 

The campaign does not yet have firm data on the number of American families that pay more than 10 percent of their annual income for childcare, O’Leary said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, average childcare costs account for 9 percent of annual income among all families above the poverty line with children under age 5; but for families below that threshold, childcare costs reach 36 percent of household annual income. Karoly said her research has shown that a family of three living at poverty level, with one child in a 9-month-a-year, high quality preschool and receiving no subsidy, might have to pay 40 percent of their income toward preschool.

Clinton’s team has drawn lessons from the candidate’s experience working on children’s issues and from the experiences of others around the country in formulating her plans, O’Leary said.

“It’s something she sincerely cares about and it’s a good time to emphasize it as she tries to appeal to a Democratic constituency that’s more left wing than it has been in years,” said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

For example, take Clinton’s RAISE Initiative, which would boost pay for childcare workers in order to cut staff turnover and increase quality: O’Leary said Clinton is “intrigued” by a program she came across in West Virginia – called the TEACH Early Childhood Project. Operating in 25 states and the District of Columbia, it offers scholarships to childcare workers to study early education. Publicly and privately funded, the project’s goal is to boost the wages of early education workers by increasing their qualifications and reduce employee turnover.

When it comes to increasing workforce wages, O’Leary said, “We’re interested in a two-front approach” combining subsidies and tax credits.

Were she to win election, Clinton would hope to capitalize on strong GOP support at the state level for early education, O’Leary said. In 2015, Republicans made up 22 of 32 governors who increased state funding for preschool, although there is considerably less support among Republicans in Congress for federal support. 

Asked whether Clinton’s focus would be on preschool for 3- or 4-year-olds or on younger children, O’Leary said, “She understands that we can’t really wait for preschool, we have to start earlier.” But O’Leary said Clinton “also recognizes that the political momentum for preschool is farther along than for early years” because it is easier for lawmakers to connect preschool and kindergarten through 12th grade education.

At a time when Clinton’s Democratic rival Sanders has pushed her campaign to the left in areas such as increasing the minimum wage and easing student debt, Clinton’s childcare and early education proposals “fit into the broader agenda of a progressive Democrat” while also reflecting her longtime policy interests, said UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson. 

Clinton’s interest in children’s issues goes back as far as her student years at the Yale Child Studies Center. She went on to work for the Children’s Defense Fund and, in the 1980s, as Arkansas’s first lady she led the implementation of a home instruction program for preschoolers’ families. As a New York senator she also proposed a plan to help states start or expand pre-K programs.

“It’s something she sincerely cares about and it’s a good time to emphasize it as she tries to appeal to a Democratic constituency that’s more left wing than it has been in years,” Jacobson said.

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