The COVID-19 pandemic has led to child care and student-learning crises, but the problems in early care and education in the United States are not new. SPA Associate Professor Taryn Morrissey (with coauthors Ajay Chaudry, Christina Weiland, and Hirokazu Yoshikawa) has updated and rereleased her 2017 book, Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality (Russell Sage Foundation), which suggests evidence-based policy solutions to America’s early childhood problems.
To mark the publication and share its new findings, SPA hosted a virtual event on March 17. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor in the U.S. House of Representatives, offered remarks along with authors and policy experts in a discussion moderated by Ruth Marcus, a columnist at The Washington Post and 2019 Sine Institute Fellow at the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA).
“The recommendations in this book reflect many of the policies we are working on now,” Scott said. “These proposals could not come at more critical time. The pandemic has been a stark reminder of the importance of early childhood care and education both for families and for our economy.”
The book’s proposals include paid parental leave, a child care assurance or subsidy for low- and moderate-income families, universal pre-K starting at age three, and a reconceptualized and expanded Head Start and Early Head Start program for young children in areas of concentrated poverty. These four pillars remain, but their recommendations now go further in ensuring the affordability of high-quality early learning opportunities, recognizing the need is even greater now than in 2017.
Scott noted that the recently adopted American Rescue Plan will cut child poverty in half by increasing food assistance, expanding the child tax credit, preserving unemployment benefits through September and providing $1,400 to millions of American families. It also provides funding to support child care providers and preschool and programs for vulnerable children, targeting money schools where it is most needed, he said.
“Since 2016, there's been a lack of forward-moving policy in this area,” said Morrissey. “Congress added more money to the child care subsidy program, but in general, policies at the federal level have been pretty consistent.”
Morrissey is more encouraged by action at the state and local levels, but progress is uneven and states and localities are facing budget crises. “States like Vermont and West Virginia have universal preschool,” she said. “Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have passed or implemented paid family leave as well as increases in access to child care subsidies, and the District of Columbia passed a major law to improve child care access that needs to be funded.” Morrissey and her coauthors have assisted the efforts in some states, and have incorporated the lessons learned in policy design and implementation into the second edition of the book.
Morrissey also points to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted and exacerbated the preexisting problems in early education, child care, and paid family leave.
“The attention that COVID has brought (the fact that most of us parents don't have any child care or K-12 schools right now) has really highlighted how much our economy relies on child care to function,” she said. “[About] 40% of the workforce are parents.”
The issue of child care is especially critical for women’s professional advancement. “We see working mothers dropping out of the workforce in dramatic numbers,” said Morrissey. “It's going to set us back about a generation, I would say, for women's advancement, and also for their children, their economic security, and for the economy. We're losing out on a trained workforce that could help innovate.”
Morrissey and coauthors also amended some of their original recommendations based on current policy conversations, particularly the work of U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA and Chair of the House Committee on Labor & Education). These legislators introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, first in 2017, and then at each Congress after. Morrissey testified at a hearing on child care in Representative Scott's committee last February.
“Many of the elements of the Child Care for Working Families Act are included in our book,” she shared. “There's a lot of overlap. . . the Overton window, so to speak, has moved in a really good direction, with research pointing to what can help families and kids.”
Scott credited the books’ authors for providing evidence-based research and documentation that lawmakers can turn to when seeking support for The Child Care for Working Families Act, which Scott plans to reintroduce soon.
“As Cradle to Kindergarten highlights, high quality, early childhood education is far too inaccessible,” Scott said. “Congress has a clear responsibility to ensure that all children have access to thrive throughout their lives.”
The second edition of Cradle to Kindergarten includes expanded policy recommendations informed by the authors’ work at the federal, state, and local levels, and updated cost estimates. Morrisey hopes it catches the attention of legislators, policy analysts, education administrators, and the public at large.
“I hope people are open to changing their minds about early childhood education being a public good and essential economic infrastructure, just like K-12 education,” added Morrissey. “This crisis has highlighted that the cascading effects that a lack of affordable, high quality child care has on families and children, whether it's children’s learning loss, mothers dropping out of the workforce, or the loss of a potential return on [public] investment.”
Morrissey emphasized the need for a new national baseline for child care. “These problems aren't new because of COVID, and we can't settle for going back to a pre-COVID time,” she said. “Child care then was really unaffordable, the supply was inadequate for the vast majority of families, and workers were paid inadequate wages. We need to think bigger and we need longer-term change.”
Many child care programs, she added, have closed their doors permanently due to the pandemic. “We have to build them back,” she insisted, “but we also have to expand.”