CREDIT: ALLISON SHELLEY FOR AMERICAN EDUCATION
Preschool students listen to a story.

Amid a pandemic that continues to disrupt children’s lives, President Joe Biden has been spearheading big investments in the early childhood education space against a contentious backdrop of political tug-of-war.

After months of haggling and horse trading in Congress, the House has finally passed Biden’s nearly $2 trillion social spending bill. While significantly downsized from its original $3.5 trillion, this groundbreaking initiative still includes about $400 billion earmarked for two cornerstones of early childhood education — universal preschool and affordable child care — as well as an extension of the child tax credit through 2022 and a paid family leave provision.

The ambitious legislative package, which narrowly passed the House on Friday and is now headed to a difficult vote in the Senate, would be paid for with increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy, although the details remain in flux. Facing unanimous Republican opposition, Democrats are trying to pass this landmark legislation under strict budget reconciliation rules, which require all Democrats in the Senate to sign off. That tricky dynamic has empowered holdouts and resulted in a marathon of stalemates and negotiations as the legislation, a key piece of Biden’s domestic policy agenda, struggles through Congress.

“It’s so sad that getting these very basic things took so much fighting and negotiation,” said Jhumpa Bhattacharya, vice president of programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a research and advocacy group. “Shows us how much patriarchal norms and values run deep within Congress.”

Despite the arduous path to fruition, early childhood experts, pointing to extensive research on the efficacy of high-quality early learning and care in shaping children’s futures for the better, herald these groundbreaking investments in early learning as historic.

“This has more potential to decrease achievement gaps and increase educational success than any national policy change in the last half-century,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Many view Biden’s mandate as transformative for a state like California, which has almost 3 million children under the age of 5. Free preschool, experts say, represents the largest expansion of universal education since public high schools were first established across the country 100 years ago.

“With the investments California just made in universal transitional kindergarten and child care coupled with these new federal investments, this is a radical transformation of what it means to raise a family in California,” said Scott Moore, head of Kidango, a nonprofit organization that runs many Bay Area child care centers. “Not only should all preschoolers be served but all infants and toddlers living in poverty, too.”

The economic squeeze on families is one reason many experts are relieved that the expanded child tax credit made it into the final bill. Biden had hoped to make it permanent but compromised by extending it for one more year.

That single provision has already lifted many children out of poverty, experts say. In California, for example, continuing the benefit will cut child poverty from 20% to 13.7% and keep more than 600,000 kids above the poverty line, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute. 

Although it was a key sticking point in negotiations, the final plan also includes some paid family leave. Eligible workers would receive up to four weeks of paid leave to take care of a new baby or other family member or to recover from an illness.

In the wake of the global health crisis, which has highlighted the importance of giving sick workers time off to heal, Biden had initially envisioned 12 weeks of paid family leave but settled for four.

Universal preschool has long been a progressive goal. Then-President Barack Obama notably championed it back in 2013 but was unable to muster Republican support. The six-year Biden plan is designed to make free preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds, particularly low-income children. The proposal would establish a federal-state partnership offering states funds to expand public preschool programs to an estimated 6 million children.

“This is big. It’s likely to become a $400 billion experiment testing whether the government can effectively narrow gross disparities in children’s early learning and vitality,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California Berkeley.

California currently lags behind other states in terms of access to early education, with only 37% of eligible children enrolled in transitional kindergarten and the state’s subsidized preschool program. The state is planning to roll out its universal transitional kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds next year, but experts say there is also a huge pool of 3-year-olds in need of early education and care. Parents, of course, would make the choice of whether to send their child to preschool as they do with kindergarten, which is not mandatory in California.

The other core goal is affordable child care. Biden’s proposed subsidized child care program for low- and middle-income families is anticipated to reach an estimated 20 million kids, White House officials said. The key tenet is that most families would not have to pay more than 7% of their incomes for child care. To qualify, parents must be in school, working, looking for a job or coping with a health issue.

Affordable child care would be a game-changer for many families, advocates say, in a high-cost-of-living state like California. In 32 states, a typical family would save more than $100 a week on child care, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. California families stand to save twice that much under the new plan.

“Child care is one of the biggest items in a family budget — right up there with their rent or mortgage payment,” said Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit research organization. “This astronomical expense hits working parents hard, often when they are earlier in their careers, and could leave little room for other expenses such as food, visits to the doctor or housing payments. It is especially transformative for working moms who may have more career choices with access to affordable child care options.”

However, the child care plan still faces resistance from religious organizations because of a nondiscrimination clause that could disqualify some religious organizations.

Many other challenges also bedevil the child care industry. Among them is scarcity. Roughly half of Americans live in “child care deserts,” areas with one spot for every three children needing care, according to a recent Treasury report.

“The pandemic tore the invisibility cloak off of the crisis that families have faced for decades, and then made it worse,” said Julie Kashen, director of Women’s Economic Justice at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “High prices of child care and early learning with no support to pay them; more than half of families living in child care deserts without safe, nurturing, affordable options; and early educators being paid $13.50 an hour on average despite their essential and complex work.”

Poverty is another critical issue. Child care workers, who are predominantly women of color, have long been among the lowest-paid workers in the country. Almost 98% of occupations pay more, according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. The Biden plan calls for increased pay for child care staff as well as training opportunities.

While the legislation will likely shift yet again in the Senate, as deficit hawks push back on spending amid rising inflation, early childhood advocates say having federal funding to bolster the state’s early learning and care system is a crucial breakthrough for the sector. They point out that the early education and care sector, which was under extreme strain even before the pandemic struck, has so long been neglected in terms of public investment that some problems, such as the child care crisis, may linger. Infrastructure has no quick fix, they fear.

“Both the U.S. and California have persistently underinvested in both child care and preschool, resulting in high parent costs, low provider wages and serving far fewer children than are eligible,” said Angela Rothermel, director of early childhood policy at Children Now. “The challenge when you’re talking about these issues is that for decades there has been such an underinvestment that to build back, we have to make investments that are not only responsive to immediate needs; we also have to take into account that we haven’t been investing in these programs for many, many years, and we are far, far behind other countries.”

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