Photo: Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
Alexandra Lozano watches preschooler Ivy Gold, 3, as she plays at Rockridge Little School on July 21 in Oakland.

In the wake of the pandemic, which has cast the essential nature of child care into high relief, President Joe Biden has revealed the outlines of a strategy to rebuild the country’s early education and care infrastructure.

Key aspects of the estimated $1 trillion American Families Plan, which Biden plans to roll out in a speech to Congress on Wednesday, remain in flux. Still, the package is widely expected to include key early childhood initiatives, including a universal pre-kindergarten, or pre-K, program, increased child care subsidies and an extension of the increased child care tax credit. There is also $25 billion earmarked for building and upgrading child care facilities in the earlier $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan.

It’s all part of Biden’s sweeping “Build Back Better” agenda, an overhaul of the economy that broadly defines infrastructure as everything from roads and bridges to education and child care.

“For too long, caregivers — who are disproportionately women, women of color and immigrants — have been unseen, underpaid and undervalued,” Biden has said.

For the child care industry, a sector that has long felt invisible, this is a long-awaited acknowledgment of the early learning and care space as vital to the functioning of society.

“We’re encouraged that the national conversation around early education has finally been elevated to the highest levels of the political playing field,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council of San Francisco, a resource and referral agency. “Over the past year, the entire nation has seen firsthand what a critical linchpin child care is to our children and to our economy. We’ve also seen that a lack of access to child care has most deeply affected women — particularly women of color — forcing mothers to string together a patchwork of unsustainable solutions or leave the workforce altogether.”

Many advocates hail the proposed legislation as a historic push to champion childhood at a time when the pandemic has widened the gap between the rich and the poor and research shows that more than 1 in 3 Californians live on the edge of poverty. In a state with almost 3 million children under age 5, it could be a game changer.

“Biden’s proposals, so far, will go further toward supporting children — especially those living in poverty — than anyone in the White House in my lifetime,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early education expert. “Right now, children from low-income families are beginning kindergarten substantially behind their middle-class peers. Most of the achievement gap is well in place when children begin school. One reason is lower participation in preschool and lower quality preschool for low-income children. Anything that broadens access and ensures quality is worth doing, and the child care and extension of the tax credit initiatives are very exciting.”

It took the pandemic, which spotlighted many social inequities, to raise awareness of just how much is at stake in early education, advocates say. For instance, studies show that students who attend high-quality preschool programs reap benefits that can last throughout the school years.

“We are now seeing unprecedented support across the board, and lawmakers are beginning to see child care as the public good that it has always been,” said Alycia Hardy, policy analyst for child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “Three major reasons it has taken a pandemic for child care to receive the level of support it has now are the increased number of families and providers that are currently being directly impacted, the severity of those impacts, and the kinds of families and providers who are being impacted.”

If the American Family Plan is enacted, advocates say, it could transform the landscape of child care and education as we know it, making massive public investments in a system that has long burdened both working families and low-wage workers. Many families can’t afford the care they need, and many child care workers can’t live on their wages.

“Biden offers a massive experiment, asking whether the government can elevate the well-being of poor households and dissipate the economic stress facing middling parents,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. “This policy revolution touches the daily lives and well-being of America’s families. Does rising income enrich home environments for young children?”

However, Fuller warns that the details are crucial when it comes to preschool implementation. A new Berkeley study of New York City’s pre-kindergarten program, which is free to all 4-year-olds, found that achievement gaps linger if there are disparities in educational quality.

“Preschool can remedy the pandemic’s terrible drag on children’s early social and mental growth, but only when families hit hardest by Covid gain access to high-quality pre-K education,” Fuller said. “If quality is tilted toward well-off children, that will simply exacerbate disparities in early learning.”

However, many early childhood advocates see any improvement in access to early education as a step in the right direction on the journey to equity. At long last, they say, the time may be right for universal pre-kindergarten, despite a deeply divided Congress.

“It seems like it’s one of the few issues that’s genuinely bipartisan, right?” said Scott Moore, CEO of Kidango, a nonprofit organization that runs many Bay Area child care centers. “A number of red states have universal pre-K, so you should see bipartisan support for it.”

Another part of the initiative that advocates laud is the proposed extension of the increased child tax credit, which many see as vital to battling child poverty.

“Biden focuses tax benefits on poor families — those placed most in harm’s way by the pandemic — while lowering taxes for middle-class families raising young children,” Fuller said. “Significant gains in family incomes reduce stress and conflict in poor households, lifting the early learning of young children. It’s a preventive policy that reduces downstream health and welfare costs to the government.”

The bill is expected to extend the raised child tax credit through at least 2025. The credit has been bumped up from a maximum of $2,000 to as much as $3,600 per child, but that boost is currently set to expire at the end of the year. Part of the money will be paid out in monthly installments of $250 to $300, a helping hand for families struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

“Sometimes you think you can see the stars aligning,” Moore said. “We’ve already had significant one-time investments in child care, and now, through the infrastructure plan, we’ll see ongoing investments in pre-K and child care, and that really paves the way.”

However, this early education and care push may well face considerable Republican opposition, largely because it is likely to be funded through increased taxes on the nation’s highest earners, long a political sticking point. Meanwhile, supporters of the move maintain that investing in education is critical to the ongoing well-being of the nation.

“You invest in our children,” as Vice President Kamala Harris has put it, “you’re going to get a huge return on your investment.”

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