Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just wrapped a back-to-school bus tour touting, among other things, the virtues of high-quality early childhood education. The effort is part of the administration's push to ensure access to high quality care and education for more students, which was one of President Obama's signature talking points during last year's presidential campaign. With polls showing that a majority of people, of all political parties, support investing in early childhood education, there's no question this issue is a winner for policymakers.
When first running for President, Obama called for a $10 billion investment in a program that would provide states with grants to integrate programs supporting pregnant women and children from birth to five years old. The President raised the issue again during his State of the Union Address this year, this time calling for a tobacco tax increase to subsidize access to high quality Pre-K. Though the odds of raising the tax on tobacco are close to nil, the Administration's overhaul of Head Start (which for the first time calls for re-bidding the worst performing Head Start programs) and introduction of Early Learning Challenge Grants (which offer funds to states that are willing to upgrade their early childhood education systems) have already enhanced the quality of many early childhood education programs serving our neediest children. Here are four ways the administration can stretch the federal dollar to have an even greater impact on the national dialogue on this important topic.
First, though the merits of high-quality early childhood education are indisputable – as Nobel Laureate James Heckman has shown – quality is extremely difficult to replicate. Bringing attention to programs that are high quality, marketing them so that consumers become familiar with what to look for and quantifying the true cost of replicating these programs is fundamental. Because the majority of early care and education is run by a patchwork of mostly private providers, leveraging ways to upgrade their quality will be the most cost-effective approach. The president and his cabinet secretaries could highlight the good work taking place every day in privately-operated programs that integrate a parent-pay model with Head Start or Child Care Development Block Grant subsidies.
Second, the administration can engage the corporate sector in the discussion by encouraging them to offer on-site childcare. According to Child Care Aware of America, the cost of early care and education from birth to kindergarten is greater now than the tuition and fees at a public university. In fact, these costs are now the second biggest expense behind housing, bigger than the cost of health care and food. One way to address the needs of working families is by engaging their employers in the discussion. According to a 2012 survey from Fortune magazine, nearly a third of Best Companies in their poll offer an onsite child care center. The Work and Family Researchers Network at the University of Pennsylvania shows that both employees and employers benefit from on-site child care. Employers see increased productivity and reduced absenteeism and employees have increased job satisfaction and have less stress knowing they have dependable care. Though the focus of federal funds must remain on our neediest students, the president can use his platform to highlight employers who are helping their workers boost their productivity by subsidizing on-site child care.
Third, given the momentum in the Senate behind the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the administration could use an existing federal vehicle to drive home many of its messages around quality (building on what the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has already done). This program, which was first authorized in 1996 when President Clinton and Congress successfully overhauled welfare, offers subsidies to welfare-to-work families to send their children to a childcare provider of their choice. One way to ensure quality in the program is by allowing funds to follow children only to high quality programs (at least in those markets where parents have a variety of options).
Finally, there is a lot that the K12 system can learn from the early childhood education space – in the way quality is measured, the way the programs respond to parental needs (and schedules) and how the best programs encourage better parenting. The administration has already brought the Department of Health and Human Services (where programs like Head Start and the child care block grant are housed) closer to the Department of Education by encouraging greater collaboration between the two agencies. The decision to appoint political and policy heavyweight Libby Doggett to run the Education's early childhood education efforts offers a great opportunity to solidify this connection and build a lasting and mutually beneficial bond between the two sectors.