Mark K. Nagasawa is director of the Straus Center for Young Children & Families at Bank Street College of Education. Lacey Peters is an assistant professor and graduate program co-coordinator for early childhood care and education at Hunter College, City University of New York. Marianne N. Bloch is professor emerita in the Departments of Curriculum and Instruction and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Beth Blue Swadener is professor emerita of justice studies and of social and cultural pedagogy in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

They are the editors of Transforming Early Years Policy in the U.S.: A Call to Action.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECE) in the U.S. had a rare moment in the sun. People came forward on multiple forums to express their realization of the heavy burdens early care and education professionals carry. Entertainment mogul Shonda Rhimes tweeted that after homeschooling her two children for “one hour and 11 minutes” she realized that, “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” She wasn’t alone in recognizing how hard—and foundational—caring for and teaching younger (and older) children is.

As it did with America’s endemic racism, the pandemic laid bare interacting issues that long preceded it, such as a fractured federalism exacerbating class-based health risks, ableist health policies, and a deep ambivalence (at best) towards women’s work. These collide in the U.S.’s hodgepodge of ECE programs, which are administered in separate federal and state agencies and with uncoordinated policy objectives.

This systemic fragmentation undermines ECE’s well-researched promise as a part of a national social equity strategy.

To our surprise, the Biden Administration had just such a plan in mind. The Build Back Better plan laid out an agenda that promised to address a spectrum of economic and social issues, including $400 billion for early care and education. As one advocate said at the time, “this would be a game-changer in early education.” But, because of a divided Senate, ECE was left out of the compromise newly labeled “Inflation Reduction Act.”

This omission matters greatly because the U.S.’s ECE system is primarily a private one in which the majority of families are responsible for paying tuition that can be higher than that at a public four year university. While there are public programs like Head Start, state preschool programs (which do not exist in all states), early childhood special education, and childcare subsidies,  these separate programs are inaccessible to many families because of substantial underfunding and geographic inaccessibility, including locations some call “childcare deserts.”

As Lila*, an early childhood teacher in one of our recent studies, explained, “You cannot say the playing field is level when you have people paying $3,000 a month for day care [in New York City].” She continued, “We need to stop pretending because … [many] children start off at a disadvantage, and then we try to pretend like we’re all starting at the same place. We aren’t.”

Additionally, the market-based and maternalist assumptions underpinning ECE in the U.S. form a “thorny knot”: the inability of most families to afford developmental nurturance and education provided by early educators who are earning professional-appropriate wages (because in a market-based system, narrow profit margins necessitate keeping wages low), which in turn adds to a sense of child care crisis for all.

To illustrate, the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley recently reported that, on average, early childhood educators have poverty rates 7.7 times that of their elementary school colleagues. Not coincidentally, the ECE profession is almost entirely woman-identifying, notably with significant earnings disparities found between Black early childhood educators and their peers.

Another New York City early educator, Joy*, described her life in this thorny knot, “I have children of my own. I need to be able to survive for my children, take care of my bills and… at the preschool I was probably pulling in a year, maybe $18,000 or $20,000.”

She left her position to become a substitute teacher with the NYC Department of Education, explaining, “My paycheck every twice a month over there would maybe be… $700… I have rent. That’s $800 and something dollars. I had an electricity bill that was $118. I was paying a daycare fee—which was $125 a week. Then MetroCard… I was like, I can’t afford this.” Her decision to leave her preschool is just one example of a national turnover problem that can severely undercut all programs, as well as undercut ECE’s long-term positive outcomes by disrupting teacher-child relationships.

While this thorny knot won’t easily be untied, we and our colleagues maintain that actionable proposals exist. The main problem is one of political will.

While the full Build Back Better package stalled in the Senate, portions did move forward—including tying child care creation to receiving funding through the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act. And while it was widely predicted to be a non-starter with the 118th Congress, President Biden recently proposed $600 billion in ECE funding for his 2023 budget.

The cynical among us might scoff at these acts as nothing more than performative progressivism. Perhaps, but where does that position get us? What if the administration is employing an incremental strategy for the next or a future Congress? As the saying goes, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.

In the spirit of being ready, what could be done with $600—or even $400—billion? Increasing access to Head Start, childcare subsidies, early intervention and early childhood special education, of course, but what else can be done?

For instance, colleagues of ours at Bank Street College of Education have developed a cost model to show how some of this new funding could be used to bring early educators’ pay on par with elementary teachers. In essence, this could be a mechanism for Joy to continue working at her preschool while earning a living wage and also furthering her professional education through a work-based residency leading to a Bachelor’s degree.

This may sound too good to be true, but they estimate that this is financially within reach, with initial pay parity (including benefits) costing $40.2 billion per year, increasing over time as participants proceed through their residencies. The residencies themselves would only cost an additional $2.2 billion over existing state and federal assistance and scholarships. Given federal, state, and local systemic complexities, this proposal would require bringing stakeholders together to discuss respective systems articulations, which serves the broader goal of creating an integrated ECE system where none currently exists.

We acknowledge that this is just one of many proposals for addressing the intertwined issues of pay equity, turnover, program quality, and meeting families’ needs. Our point is that sound ideas exist, and the time is right for the field to mobilize around them.

While we are optimistic, increased funding is not inevitable, it must be made to happen by building the necessary political will to overcome Congressional intransigence, while simultaneously preparing for how to use these resources for equitable ends. Researchers can lend their privilege, knowledge, and analytic tools to this mobilization by standing with educators and advocates, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Women’s Law Center, and Child Care Aware.

Furthermore, professional advocates must begin mobilizing the power of grassroots organizing, seen in groups that formed during the pandemic, such as the Brooklyn Coalition of Early Childhood Programs and the 7500-strong Facebook group, Essential Not Expendable. Imagine if groups like these from across the country were not only networked with each other but also working with national organizations to advocate for the transformed early childhood system families deserve.

Transforming Early Years Policy in the U.S.

A Call to Action

Edited By: Mark K. Nagasawa, Lacey Peters, Marianne N. Bloch, Beth Blue Swadener

*indicates a pseudonym has been used

Photo by Yan Krukau