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What’s on the Horizon for Early Childhood Education in 2021?

Local and national preschool efforts provide clues.

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Eight months into the pandemic, voters in Multnomah County, Oregon, approved a new tax on high earners to fund a program called Preschool For All.

The action represents a major early childhood investment during a recession that threatens to drive many child care providers out of business. It also puts forth a compelling model for solving some of the problems that publicly funded preschool and child care programs in other states and cities haven’t fully addressed.

View the video recording of a Jan. 28 EWA session, ‘Innovative Early Education Policy Models: Promising or Pipe Dreams?’

Mark Holloway, who served as vice-chair of the Preschool For All Task Force, said during a recent Education Writers Association panel discussion that the grassroots effort tackled what’s known as the “trilemma” – the desire to provide high quality care for kids, fair wages for child care workers, and affordability for parents.

Local Initiative Offers Free Preschool, Ban on Expulsions

The program will provide free, universal preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in Oregon’s most populous county, which includes Portland, phasing in service for children with the highest needs first. Lead preschool teachers will receive an annual salary of $74,000, according to a New York Times story, and teaching assistants will receive $20 an hour. (The median salary for preschool teachers across the U.S. was $31,000 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics.).

The Multnomah County program will also invest in training and coaching for preschool teachers and prohibit the expulsion of preschool children, a form of discipline that disproportionately affects boys of color.

Holloway called Preschool For All “the most comprehensive universal preschool program passed in the country thus far.”

Panelist Javaid Siddiqi, the president & CEO of The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with Duke University, elaborated on the trilemma, saying the child care industry nationwide is a broken model.

“Parents pay literally as much as they can bear while the costs are subsidized on the backs of the early childhood workforce, who largely are women of color,” he said.

One bright spot, panelists agreed, was that early childhood proposals often draw bipartisan support at all levels of government.

‘Democratic socialists, Chamber of Commerce’ team up

As Preschool For All emerged, Holloway said, “We had Democratic socialists and the Chamber of Commerce sitting at the table together and being like, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and ultimately it won 63%” of voters.

Where EWA panelists disagreed was on the adequacy of the federal government’s early childhood COVID-19 relief for child care and the promise of President Joe Biden’s early childhood proposals.

Angela Rachidi, a poverty scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank, highlighted the boost in federal money for child care over the last 10 months. (The federal CARES Act passed in March included $3.5 billion for child care. In December, Congress approved a relief package with $10 billion in child care aid.)

“That was the result of policymakers changing the conversation about how important federal care assistance is in the child care market,” Rachidi said.

But Holloway quickly noted that the amount for child care was “pennies on the dollar” compared to what the airline industry received in federal relief. Last spring, airlines got $25 billion in aid and in December, they got another $15 billion.

The panelists also had differing views on Biden’s child care proposals, which include funding for child care subsidies, universal preschool, and expanded child tax credits.

Rachidi called the Democratic president’s plan a hodgepodge that lacks cohesiveness and clear priorities.

Siddiqi said there’s a lot to like in the plan, from universal preschool to limiting child care expenses to 7% of family income for lower-income families. He said the president could have done more to focus on the 0-3 age group.

“This is pretty indicative of where early childhood policy is in the states as well,” Siddiqi said. “We spend a lot of time working to expand preschool programs for 4-year-olds in particular, not giving enough … to the most critical years of development, which now seems like an obvious mistake.”

Rachidi agreed with that assessment and said the expansion of the federal child care subsidy program could contribute to the ongoing decline in home-based child care providers.

She said child care subsidies generally end up funding center-based care and are not as friendly to in-home providers because of the program’s focus on high quality ratings.

“Even if we get more federal funding, is it going to really reach the families that are most in need?” she said. “Those are the families who have non-standard work hours, who have infants, who need that in-home care.”

Key Issues for Reporters to Watch

During the session, panelists identified a number of important developments for reporters to watch and issues to keep in mind. They include:

  • Are other communities developing proposals similar to Multnomah County’s? Holloway said Preschool For All is getting lots of calls from other communities interested in trying something similar. He also highlighted the Children’s Funding Project, a group that helps communities figure out how to finance early childhood efforts.
  • Which of Biden’s early childhood care proposals are coming to fruition and will they end up benefiting families with the greatest needs? One example: Rachidi mentioned that adopting child tax credits that are refundable would benefit the lowest income families because that type of credit is available even to families who pay no taxes because they make too little.
  • What revenue sources are cities, counties, and states using to fund early childhood and what are the pros and cons? Siddiqi said when the economy tanked last year, Virginia officials had to switch gears in funding early childhood efforts. Their latest plan involves marijuana tax revenue — an uncomfortable fit for some early childhood advocates. Holloway noted that the Preschool For All Coalition looked at a variety of funding sources before deciding on income tax. Some don’t yield much money, he said, (e.g. restaurant taxes), others fluctuate too much with the economy (e.g. capital gains taxes), and some are just politically unpopular (e.g. sales taxes. Oregon currently has no sales tax.)