Our nation’s early childhood education programs have been navigating structural cracks and financial cliffs for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these cracks and cliffs unavoidable, putting our programs into free fall. If our economy is to recover, it will require a reimagined approach to financing and structuring the systems that support high-quality child care.
The child care crisis will not be solved by simply reopening child care. The math speaks for itself: public health guidelines that rightly require smaller group sizes, stronger ratios, and increased spending on sanitation—combined with lower enrollment and the same fixed costs—will equal financial insolvency, and, in the absence of additional investment, program closure. In other words, opening child care will mean closing child care—unless we make ongoing, consistent, and substantial public, private, and philanthropic investments that pay for programs to exist throughout the entire economic recovery.
But let’s go a step further. Before COVID-19, even at full enrollment the child care market was broken. The way the system is financed left too few children with access to high-quality early childhood settings, too many early childhood educators living on poverty-level wages, and too many programs one rent payment away from closing down. We can’t go from the proverbial frying pan into the fire—from this crisis back to the crisis that was already defining our early learning systems. We must learn from some of the good policy and financing choices state leaders and policymakers in particular have made in the midst of this disaster to move forward—not return to the way things were before.
The pandemic has laid bare the need to finally resolve the fundamental challenges that have confronted us for decades—those which, if resolved appropriately, will support a strong American workforce and economy, propel far more children into high-quality child care, and ensure the essential status of early childhood educators is permanently reflected by increased investments in their education and compensation.
Here are six keys we can use to unlock a better, more equitable future:
1. Count by Contract, Not by Child
In the last two months, many states have taken advantage of new and existing flexibilities in child care subsidy to provide consistent payments to both open and closed programs. These moves are a welcome departure from typical CCDBG (Child Care and Development Block Grant) funding approaches, which are too often based on funding the attendance of individual children. In an underfunded system in which only one in six eligible children receives subsidy, this approach puts program stability out of reach. So let’s not return to it. States should build on their current strategies to move permanently toward contracts with eligible licensed and regulated programs in centers and homes, which pay for a defined, consistent number of slots that programs can count on and use to serve CCDBG-eligible children.
We shouldn’t expect the market to serve children from families with low incomes with high-quality child care if we don’t pay programs what it costs to do so. States should have access to child care subsidy funding sufficient to allow them to commit to paying at or above current market rates and sustaining those increases each year. Doing so will result in significant economic benefits to the state and its workers—not to mention increased social and emotional, cognitive, and academic benefits for children.
3. Pay Early Childhood Educators What They Are Worth
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, health care professionals have rightfully been lauded for their heroic efforts, but child care providers have routinely been overlooked. Both health care and child care professionals are in essential roles, with hard science that backs up the value of their professions. Yet can you imagine the compounded challenges of this crisis if nurses and doctors were earning $10.70 per hour, as early childhood educators do? If we truly value early childhood education as the backbone of other industries, then those who are providing the service every day need to be paid in alignment with their value, skills, and competencies.
4. Use the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession
The need for a unified, understandable profession is clearer than ever, and our approach to building toward it should be reliant on the road map developed through the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession. Specifically, we should seek to avoid 50+ separate approaches for credentialing and certifications, which would inevitably result in an inefficient, inequitable system that is next to impossible for early childhood educators, families, and policymakers to navigate. It’s time to move toward a straightforward, aligned, fair, and coordinated system articulated through Power to the Profession, with individuals serving as Early Childhood Educators I, II, and III across all states and settings.
Over the last two decades, the attention to the development and implementation of Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) has done a lot to move high-quality child care into the vernacular. Yet in this moment, we must reflect on whether we have made progress equivalent to what individualized state systems have cost us. While we have spent tens of millions of dollars on QRIS-related activities—including coaches, assessors, data systems, validation and evaluation systems, and cost of quality studies—early childhood educators have, on the whole, not earned more money, and child care programs have continued to operate on razor-thin margins. If we had made the same investments in the drivers of quality related to the workforce and to the program environment, including compensation, market rate payments, scholarships to support the attainment of post-secondary degrees, and early learning and higher education program accreditation, what might our outcomes look like now?
6. Incentivize Employers to Have Skin in the Game
This public health crisis has reinforced the essential nature of child care in order to keep at least part of America working in the face of an epidemic—and the rest of America working in the context of a recovery. It is critical that companies and industries recognize the contribution that child care makes to their ability to attract and retain a highly skilled workforce, to provide a valuable good or service, and to return earnings to their investors and shareholders. This recognition should come in the form of a strong commitment to employer-sponsored child care, which can sit alongside substantial public investment in child care as a public good.
Since we can’t go back, let’s go forward by building on the best of what we know about how young children thrive and learn, how families need stable child care to go to work, and how early childhood educators must be valued with far more than accolades and applause.