Credit: Lawrence Jackson/Official White House Photo
Vice President Kamala Harris and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visit a classroom on March 26, 2021, at the West Haven Child Development Center in West Haven Connecticut.

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President Joe Biden’s relief plan for families, which he rolled out in Wednesday’s address to a joint session of Congress, may well be a transformative move for children, early childhood advocates say, taking a historic step toward establishing a seamless system of early education and care.

Dubbed the “American Families Plan,” this roughly $1.8 trillion infrastructure package would set aside big money for key early childhood initiatives as part of a vast cradle-to-college agenda.

Key proposals in this 10-year plan include an estimated $200 billion for universal preschool programs, $225 billion for child care and $225 billion for paid family and medical leave. The plan would also extend the increased child tax credit until 2025, a measure estimated to cost as much as $400 billion.

“We also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families, in our children,” Biden said in a sweeping speech that touched on diverse issues ranging from climate change and racial justice to education and health care.

“That’s why I’m introducing the American Families Plan tonight, which addresses four of the biggest challenges facing American families today. First, access to a good education. When this nation made 12 years of public education universal in the last century, it made us the best-educated and best-prepared nation in the world. But the world is catching up. They are not waiting. Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete in the 21st century.”

There are still many unknowns about which, if any, of the proposals put forward by Biden will be enacted. But the programs are in keeping with the push from California lawmakers to focus on early learners. Gov. Gavin Newsom has made early education a major part of his policy agenda, such as expanding paid family leave, and the state Legislature has for years been pushing to expand early education programs.

“It’s absolutely a thrilling development,” said Mary Ignatius, statewide organizer of Parent Voices, a California parent advocacy group. “The last time a president considered this level of national investment was 50 years ago, but Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development bill of 1972. Before that, it was President Truman with the Lanham Act of 1946 that supported mothers to help with the war effort. That was 75 years ago.”

“After all the hard work since then to convince decision-makers about the critical importance of child care, brain development, the economic engine that it creates, the ability for mothers to work and build a career, it finally feels like we’re on the precipice of our own moment,” she said.

Former President Barack Obama also set universal preschool as a key part of his policy agenda, but he was unable to persuade Republicans in Congress to go along.

“Biden has rekindled a vital conversation, not heard since the advent of Head Start a half-century ago,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, “about how to lift young children and backstop America’s families.”

Biden’s ambitious blueprint in support of early learners would be at least partially funded by tax increases on high earners and big investors, a stance unpopular with Republican lawmakers amid a polarized Congress.

“It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to pay their fair share,” Biden said. “Just pay their fair share.”

And yet child advocates see issues such as universal preschool as fundamentally bipartisan, given the extensive research showing that children who attend preschool are more likely to take honors classes and less likely to repeat a grade.

“The American Families Plan is a long-overdue investment in our nation’s human capital,” said Chrisanne Gayl, chief strategy and policy officer at Trust for Learning, a philanthropic partnership supporting early childhood education. “We believe that investment in young children’s growth and development is critical in order to create a more equitable, just and compassionate society. If we are truly going to be living up to our potential and our nation’s promise of opportunity for all, we know through research that an investment in young children is an investment that will be returned to us, tenfold.”

Biden’s earlier American Jobs Plan, the first installment of this two-part infrastructure plan, which included $25 billion set aside for building and upgrading child care facilities, combined with the American Families Plan, would cost about $4 trillion in total.

“We’re super excited about this new package of proposals. It’s bold, it’s big, and it’s exactly what we need at this moment,” said Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project, an advocacy/research organization based at Arizona State University. “We’re especially excited to see how we can all work together to make sure we build a system that works for families, especially those who have been historically left behind.”

At the core of the package is universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as expanded child care subsidies. Taken in tandem, advocates say, these proposals prepare parents to get back to work and prepare children to succeed in K-12.

“Publicly funded preschool is also about a critical period in brain development for young children,” Gayl said. “They are literally developing the brain architecture to become critical thinkers about the world around them, learning how to regulate their emotions, develop resiliency and build relationships with one another. There’s overwhelming evidence about the impact of high-quality early education.”

The $200 billion preschool initiative, a federal/state partnership the administration estimates would reach 5 million children, is aimed at creating the low student-to-teacher ratios, inclusive atmosphere and rigorous teacher training opportunities that mark a high-quality and developmentally appropriate curriculum. This is a goal echoed in California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care.

“The research shows that when a young child goes to school — not day care — they are far more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college,” Biden said.

Expanding preschool enrollment, which fell by 25% nationally during the pandemic, is a key concern right now, experts say. About 90% of brain growth happens before kindergarten, but studies show that only 1 in 3 eligible children under 5 take part in California’s publicly funded early learning and care programs.

“The kind of early education a child gets depends on what state they live in,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-​director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, an independent research and policy organization based at Rutgers University.  “Most states don’t spend enough, and growing quality takes time.”

The legislation is intended to help both working families, who often cannot afford the child care they need, and struggling child care workers, who have been buffeted by the escalating costs of business during the pandemic.

The child care plan, which builds on the existing structure of the federal Child Care Development Block Grant, offers subsidies to families earning up to 1.5 times their state’s median income, and low- and middle-income families would pay no more than 7% of their income for child care. It would also provide wraparound care for children attending preschool and needing care after the school day.

“Two million women have dropped out of the workforce during this pandemic,” Biden said, “too often because they couldn’t get the care they need for their family, their children.”

Poverty has long haunted the child care industry. The wage for a child care worker, a workforce dominated by women of color, is about $12 an hour nationally. In California, about 17% of the state’s early childhood educators live in poverty as the costs of living skyrocket.

Under the Biden proposal, child care staff will receive job training and earn a guaranteed wage of about $15 per hour, although administration officials note that those with teaching credentials would earn more.

“We very much appreciate the bold leadership and investment by the Biden administration in addressing the child care crisis, which is devastating California’s most marginalized children, families and providers,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a research and advocacy group. “These bold investments start to address the poverty-level wages that providers have had to endure — providers who are primarily women of color. To build back our economy and address the trauma our children, families and providers faced during the pandemic, we need to address both facilities and fair pay immediately — it can’t wait.”

Another critical part of the initiative is the extension of the increased child tax credit, which many see as a key to fight child poverty in a time of widening economic disparity, until 2025. This refundable tax credit could reduce the number of children living in poverty by nearly half, according to a study by the National Academies of Sciences, and would pay out monthly installments. It’s a huge boon to struggling families that should not expire, experts say.

“This is supposed to be Biden’s signature anti-poverty program, and he has expressed a desire to make it permanent,” said Fuller, “but his plan has it running for just five years.”

Meanwhile, the child and dependent care tax credit, which is $4,000 for one child or dependent, and $8,000 for two or more dependents, would be made permanent.

The paid leave program would also affect the early childhood sphere, providing 12 weeks of paid “parental, family and personal illness/safe leave.” Workers on leave would earn up to $4,000 a month, with as little as two-thirds or as much as 80 percent of their incomes replaced, depending on how much they earn. This would give low-income parents, the least likely to use such benefits because they are barely scraping by already, time to bond with their babies at a crucial time for brain growth.

“No one should have to choose between a job and paycheck or taking care of themselves and a loved one, a parent, spouse or child,” Biden said.

While early childhood advocates uniformly cheer having a champion of childhood initiatives in the White House at long last, they are also pushing the Biden administration to target equity in a society where achievement gaps are often driven by race and class.

“You can’t just infuse more money and expand access to a system that wasn’t working in the first place for too many today,” said Meek, a former adviser to the Obama administration. “Equity matters in this space too. And it especially matters for our youngest kids. Equity doesn’t happen by accident. We’re not doing our job well if we’re perpetuating opportunity gaps and not budging disparities.”

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