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early childhood education policy
RALEIGH, NC – On primary day surrounded by preschoolers, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets volunteers at a Southeast Raleigh Magnet High school polling place in Raleigh, North Carolina on Tuesday March 15, 2016. Credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This interview is a supplement to a six-part series about how little the United States invests in the education of young children. Read the whole series.

Hillary Clinton has been focused on the issue of early childhood education since she was in law school, 40 years ago. Were she to become president, she’d be the first in the history of the office to come in with the protection and education of young children as her signature issue.

To learn more about exactly how she hopes to change what the U.S. invests in young children, we contacted her campaign for an interview. While that wasn’t to be, the campaign did agree to answer our questions by email. Below, please find our questions and Clinton’s answers, exclusive to The Hechinger Report and our partner publications.

In the name of transparency, we haven’t edited the conversation at all. In a few cases, Clinton’s answers are not as direct as one might hope. Still, Clinton’s expertise on the issue is undeniable and we have highlighted several of her key statements in pull quotes throughout the piece. We have also fact-checked her statements and linked to relevant articles or research throughout.

Finally, though Donald Trump does not have equivalent experience on early education, he has made affordable child care one of the talking points of his campaign in recent weeks. We reached out to Trump’s campaign several times asking for his thoughts on these issues and received no response.

1) You’ve dedicated yourself to the issue of caring for young children for 40 years at this point. Why is early childhood such an important issue for you?

Every child deserves the chance to fulfill their God-given potential. In law school, I was deeply inspired by Marian Wright Edelman’s work to give children the best possible start in life, and it led me to the Yale Child Study Center. After law school, I went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, where I documented the challenges facing children with disabilities. Later, I had the opportunity to apply these ideas in Arkansas when I helped launch a home visiting program called HIPPY, which teaches parents to be their kids’ first teachers.

“If we want our children to thrive in tomorrow’s economy, we must invest in our children’s future today, starting with our youngest learners, especially those from our most vulnerable and at-risk communities.”

In the 1990s, scientific breakthroughs led us to understand more about early brain development and the importance of early learning from birth. I lifted up this scientific research as first lady by hosting the first ever White House conference on early learning and brain development, and then fought for the creation of Early Head Start to help low-income children receive the support they need from infancy.  As a Senator, I called for a national pre-K initiative to provide funding to states to establish high-quality pre-K programs. And, after I left the State Department, I started a program called “Too Small to Fail,” to raise awareness about the “word gap,” which refers to the fact that children from higher-income families hear 30 million more words than their low-income peers by the time they are 3 years old. As a result, higher-income children start school with double the vocabulary. But we know that parental awareness coupled with real early learning supports can close this word gap.

Just last week we learned that our collective efforts have paid off: researchers from Stanford University, Columbia University and the University of Virginia found that from 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap between low-income and high-income children shrunk by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. They attributed this narrowing of the school readiness gap to the collective investments our country has made in preschool and the awareness we have brought to low-income parents who may not have previously known the importance of talking, reading and singing to their children from birth to engage their brains during this critical time.

Throughout my career, I have been guided by a strong belief, backed by rigorous research, that what happens in the early years has a profound effect on overall child well-being and success in school and life—and that every child deserves a fair shot at achieving their dreams, no matter what they look like or where they are born.

2) The title of our series, “Little To Nothing,” is a reference to how much we invest in the country’s youngest children. You’ve visited many other developed countries and know how far behind we are. What is your perspective on why other OECD countries are spending so much more on young children than we are in the U.S.?

I fundamentally believe that every child has something precious to offer the world, and all they need is opportunity. I have visited countries around the world that make investment in young children a priority. They know that investing in early childhood is good for families and good for economic development. The evidence is overwhelming.

I’ve fought for a very long time for childcare, paid leave, early learning programs, and good schools. That’s what I wanted for my daughter and grandchildren, and it’s what I want for all of our kids. If we want our children to thrive in tomorrow’s economy, we must invest in our children’s future today, starting with our youngest learners, especially those from our most vulnerable and at-risk communities.

Today, I am more hopeful than ever that we are making progress. Universal preschool is not a partisan issue. It has been embraced by Republican and Democratic governors alike, and public awareness campaigns around early learning are often led by business coalitions in communities across the country. The country is ready to work together to continue to make forward progress in early learning.

3) You have proposed that no family would pay more than 10 percent of their income to cover child care. How would that work?  I’m looking for specifics about how families would receive subsidies and tax credits; i.e. would a family be reimbursed at the end of the year through their tax return? Would there be a Health Savings Account type of situation? Would subsidies and credits flow directly to child care centers and preschools?

“The American people deserve a president who understands not only the big challenges we need to tackle as a country, but also the everyday realities — the quiet problems — that can keep families up at night.”

It’s pretty simple: when families thrive, our nation thrives. That’s why we need to enact policies to meet the challenges families face in our 21st-century economy. Today, many families rely on two incomes to make ends meet, and 40 percent of moms serve as the sole or primary breadwinners in their household, making access to high-quality, affordable childcare an economic necessity. And yet, the cost of sending two kids to a childcare center can exceed the cost of rent. That’s outrageous. Single moms are too often spending 40 percent of their income on child care, and two working parents earning minimum wage spend 20 percent. If we’re going to say that we’re for “family values,” then we need to value families.

No family should have to pay more than 10 percent of their income on childcare, and every family should have access to universally available public preschool. My plan will significantly increase our investment in federal childcare subsidies and provide tax relief to offset the cost of care in working families. We’ll also make targeted investments in programs that supplement child care needs. For example, we’ll double the number of children served by Early Head Start, make pre-school universal for every 4-year-old in America, and increase support for campus-based child care centers to serve an additional 250,000 children. And to increase the quality of care and pay childcare workers what they deserve, we’ll launch the Respect and Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators (RAISE) initiative.

4) You’ve said preschool should be available for all children. Why do you see subsidies and tax credits as a better method to achieve this end than creating a federally funded program run through the country’s K-12 public schools?

I believe that we need a mix of federal investments. That is why I have come out strongly in favor of developing a universal preschool program in the United States, funded with a federal-state partnership so that every 4-year-old in America has access to high-quality preschool in the next 10 years.

But, frankly, we cannot wait to invest in children until they are 4 years old. In addition to preschool, there is a wide variety of great programs across the country that serve children from infancy through preschool — community-based programs, neighborhood providers, Head Start programs, school-based programs and many more — but families can’t always access those options. We need to give parents the ability to make the right choice for their families, and this will take a mixture of increased child care subsidies and tax breaks to make it possible for families to afford this care.

5) What do you think of Donald Trump’s proposal to make child care and preschool more affordable by making more child care expenses tax deductible?

10 percent — Maximum amount of family income Clinton would like to see spent on child care.

Donald Trump’s proposal is a thinly veiled effort to pretend he cares about the challenges facing working families. Earlier in the campaign, Trump said childcare is “not an expensive thing” because “you need some blocks and you need some swings.”  And unsurprisingly, Trump’s proposal is designed to benefit wealthy families just like his own while providing little to no support for the vast majority of American families.

6) You’ve long been a champion of Head Start and Early Head Start, the federally funded preschool and early care program for families living below the poverty line. How would you describe your role in launching Early Head Start, the program that serves children 3-years-old and younger, in 1994?

The Head Start program has helped millions of children get a strong start on the road to a successful education. I’ll never forget my conversations with David Hamburg, then president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, following his release of the Starting Points report that made the case so persuasively for the importance of investing in the early years. I was proud to advocate for the creation of the Early Head Start program when I was first lady, which provides comprehensive services to our youngest learners and their families — including health, nutrition, and pre-literacy support, with a strong focus on children’s social and emotional development. I also support the Early Head Start — Child Care Partnership program, which brings Early Head Start’s evidence-based curriculum into child care settings in order to provide comprehensive, full-day, high-quality services to low-income families. As president, I will double the number of children served by Early Head Start and the Early Head Start — Child Care Partnership program to ensure that all of our children have a strong foundation from which to learn.

7) The lack of federally guaranteed, paid family leave for a broader array of workers is an issue that’s been gaining more attention as millennial women enter the workforce. Together with your husband, you helped implement the Family Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to people working at companies of more than 50 employees who have worked there for at least a year. You have proposed to pay workers at least two thirds of their current wages during their 12-week leave. How would that proposal work and what would it achieve? Also, would your proposal cover employees of smaller companies, those employed part-time as shift workers, and others who are not currently covered?

No one should have to choose between keeping their job and taking care of a sick family member. Too many moms have to return to work just days after their babies are born. And too many dads and parents of adopted children don’t get any paid leave at all. Neither do sons and daughters struggling to take care of their aging parents. And today, the United States is the only developed nation in the world with no guaranteed paid leave of any kind.

We’ll work to pass twelve weeks of paid family leave, in which hardworking Americans get at least two-thirds of their current wages, up to a ceiling. And we’ll pay for it by making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share — not by increasing taxes on working families. Supporting families isn’t a luxury — it’s an economic necessity — and it’s long past time our policies catch up to the way families live and work today.

8) Nurse home-visiting services that provide expectant and new mothers with medical check-ups, child development information and parenting skills have been found to be an excellent way to increase school readiness and child health, especially among low-income families. Again, you’ve long been a champion of such programs. However, other countries provide these services for all of their citizens. And, even in this country, such services have been shown to improve child outcomes and reduce infant mortality among higher income families as well. Would you support expanding home visiting to middle class mothers? Why or why not?

“We’ll work to pass twelve weeks of paid family leave, in which hardworking Americans get at least two-thirds of their current wages, up to a ceiling.  And we’ll pay for it by making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share — not by increasing taxes on working families.”

All new parents deserve support, no matter where they live. As first lady of Arkansas, I brought the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) to the state to help parents become their children’s first teachers. As president, I will expand home visiting programs nationwide, by doubling our investment in initiatives such as the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. These programs — which provide home visits by a social worker or nurse during and directly after pregnancy — significantly improve maternal and child health, development, and learning. And these programs can promote economic growth: scientific evidence shows that brain development in the earliest years of childhood is crucial to economic success.

9) Early childhood is widely touted as a bipartisan issue, yet in the last four years Congress has made only incremental progress on increasing our funding for it or changing our country’s policies about it. How, if at all, would you expect to change that?

Investment in early childhood is — and should be — a bipartisan issue. We’ve seen progress and examples of bipartisan cooperation — in communities around the country, in states with both Democratic and Republican governors that have increased state investment in pre-K, and on the passage of a bipartisan child care bill in Congress.

Just like I have throughout my career, as president, I will work with leaders across Washington and our nation to increase our investment in early childhood and fight for policies like universal preschool, affordable child care, and paid family leave that will make a difference in the lives of our families and advance our country’s economic competitiveness.

10) If you had just a few minutes in a room with every mother and father of a child under 5, how would you tell them a vote for you would affect their lives and the life of their child?

The American people deserve a president who understands not only the big challenges we need to tackle as a country, but also the everyday realities — the quiet problems — that can keep families up at night.

I’ve made a career out of fighting for children and families. For my first job out of law school at the Children’s Defense Fund, I went door-to-door to talk to children and their parents, gather facts, and build a coalition — and our work helped convince Congress to guarantee access to education for students with disabilities. To drive progress, you need both understanding and action.

I’ve always believed, as some of you know, that it takes a village to raise a child, that we have a responsibility to support each other and create the best possible environment for kids to grow up so they, too, can thrive.

I’m also committed to supporting working parents because I’ve been one myself, and because I’ve worked with so many men and women with children who have given so much to their jobs while doing the most important job of all — raising their kids. As your president, I’ll fight every single day to make America the best place in the world to raise a family.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education.

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