K-12 education in the United States is, for the most part, seen as a public good. The vast majority of K-12 students – more than 90% – attend public schools. The country spends roughly hundreds of billions of dollars on K-12 education, approximately $14,000 per student. That’s on top of the billions public schools received in pandemic-era relief funding.
Early childhood education (ECE) is a different story. The U.S. spends less than half a percent of its gross domestic product on child care and early childhood education, which typically concerns children ages 0-5. That worked out to just $6,571 per child in 2021-2022, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Many families effectively receive zero dollars from the government.
This lack of investment is an American problem: The U.S. has for decades trailed most other developed nations in ECE spending. Scandinavian countries, for example, dedicate nearly 2% of their budgets to child care and early learning services. And while the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the educational and economic consequences of this lack of investment, funding increases have been spotty and fleeting. Pandemic-era relief for ECE – including an expanded child tax credit that resulted in a drastic reduction in childhood poverty – has expired.
We as education reporters play a key role in shedding light on the consequences of these inequities, particularly for the children who get the short end of the stick but arguably need it most. These include low-income students of color, children with special needs or children whose families are homeless, recent immigrants or who speak a language other than English.
As reporters, we can probe into the funding disparities and hold policymakers accountable for their promises at a time when ECE is in vogue. We can interview parents of young children in our communities, asking about the toll costly child care has taken on their jobs and livelihoods and bottom lines. We can help readers with a stake in the issue better understand the art and science of ECE, from pedagogical models to developmental science.
At the end of the day, all of these inequities – from uneven access to uneven pay – can significantly shape kids’ long-term outcomes.
Understand Accessibility Issues in America’s Early Childhood Education Systems
Largely because of the funding issue, ECE is incredibly decentralized in the U.S. Here’s an overview of the main ECE systems and types, and the ways in which they affect access:
- Head Start and Early Head Start – a federally funded program earmarked for low-income children. These centers serve just a fraction of the children in need. During the 2020-2021 year, they enrolled less than a third of the children ages 3-5 – and less than 10% of the infants and toddlers – living in poverty.
- Prekindergarten – usually a public program, sometimes administered by the local school district and attached to K-12 schools. Sometimes these programs are reserved for students with special needs. In 2019, public school special education programs served roughly 700,000 3- to 5-year-olds. As with Head Start, these public programs are often earmarked for low-income young children yet reach just a fraction of that population: Only a third of 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool in 2022, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research. Recent policy developments have meant a growing number of preschool-aged children are accessing free pre-K.
- Private preschool centers – Unlike free publicly funded offerings, centers can charge an average of $10,000 if not significantly more, depending on the age and location. Because they’re cost-prohibitive, these private settings in many ways contribute to the inequities in early learning. Ripple effects persist into K-12 schools. Check out this Economic Policy Institute tool to learn more about typical preschool costs in your state. For example, the average annual cost of infant care in California is $16,945 annually or $1,412 per month.
- Other child care – These vary greatly in setting, provider and cost. Options include home-based providers and informal family, friend and neighbor (FFN) offerings. They’re often the only providers low-income families who don’t gain access to Head Start or another public program can afford, even after subsidies.
These programs serve roughly 4 million children annually, according to an April 2023 analysis by the left-leaning think tank New America. That’s just a subset of the 23 million total U.S. children ages 0-5.
Be Flexible When Covering Immigrant and Non-English-Speaking Caregivers
“There’s so many different types of child care settings that I think are really important and you know, overall, every single one of them plays a role [in] the system,” said Alejandra Londono Gomez, a researcher at The Center for Law and Social Policy who studies child care. What accommodates the needs and desires of an upper middle-class family, for example, may not suit the schedule and budget of a single mom who works unpredictable hours.
The onus is on us as reporters to write just as much about the home-based or informal-care settings as we do the centers that serve middle-class families. Most young children, when they are in care, are in the former. Yet ECE reporting tends to focus on the centers.
“Many of these caregivers are immigrants and/or speak a language other than English, which could require extra work on our part to hire translators, but it’s critical to understand the broader scope of caregivers in our country and include their voices,” veteran The Hechinger Report ECE reporter Jackie Mader told me.
Mader, who’s embarking on a Spencer Fellowship project on the topic, stressed that elevating these voices requires flexibility. “Keeping in mind the long hours these professionals work is important,” she said. “It’s not a job where a teacher can walk away and chat with a reporter for an uninterrupted period of time, so incorporating more of these voices often requires flexibility on our part and patience when it comes to connecting and getting responses.”
Spell Out the Importance of ECE for Everyday People
ECE is not a cure-all, nor is it consistent in its benefits. But there’s little doubt that enriching, interactive and safe early childhood experiences are crucial to our development as humans.
An ever-growing body of research underscores the benefits of ECE for kids’ social-emotional development and academic readiness, as well as for parents’ ability to and choices of work. On the flipside, an ever-growing body of research shows the consequences of what are known as ACEs or adverse childhood experiences. They make clear that when the parents of young children suffer or struggle, so too do those young children.
According to Diana McClarien, vice president for Start Early’s Early/Head Start Network, laypeople would benefit from a greater understanding of how much the brain develops in the first few years of life. This can help them connect the dots for why it’s so important.
There’s also a need for more coverage spelling out for readers the economic stakes of the issue. Lacking ECE costs the country $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity and revenue. Ask parents how child care has interfered with their ability to work and live comfortably.
Include These Voices in Your Early Childhood Education Coverage
- Parents: Track them down via Facebook groups and other social media or community centers, for example. Tap into your existing parent networks – chances are many will have younger children, and if so they likely have thoughts about ECE costs and availability.
- Preschool teachers and other early childhood educators: Track them down the same way you find parents, or go directly through the agency or provider they work for.
- ECE advocates: There are many national, state and local advocacy organizations; they’re often happy to connect you with folks on the ground. Social workers are always helpful, and pediatric hospitals can be, too. (Sometimes they have child development centers.)
- Home-based providers (licensed and unlicensed): Local child care networks and advocacy groups can be a great resource to find these providers.
- Informal caregivers: Often left out of the conversation, caregivers who step in when parents are in a pinch can offer some of the most valuable perspectives.
Cover the Early Years With Data and Research
Explore These Questions During Your Early Childhood Education Reporting
- Access: Who has access to ECE in your community, and who doesn’t? How do ECE programs vary in quality?
- Program quality: For children who are enrolled, how enriching is the environment? If a program is low-quality, why? Does it not have access to or the money to provide professional development and research-based learning materials? Are educators overworked and underpaid? Are providers in debt?
- ECE workforce: What is your local ECE workforce’s demographics, pay and work conditions? What sacrifices do they make to remain in ECE, and what would be – or are – the consequences of them leaving the workforce?
- Universal prekindergarten: Who would it serve, and how would it be funded? Is spending on universal prekindergarten even the right move? The research on such programs has been mixed.
- Outcomes: What data can you get on programs’ outcomes? Are districts tracking how kids who participated in ECE fare in school compare with those who didn’t?