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early childhood education
Hillary Clinton reads “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to a preschool class at a YMCA in Rochester, New Hampshire on June 15, 2015. Credit: Melina Mara, The Washington Post via Getty Images

This is the sixth story in a series exploring the current state of America’s preschools.

For the first time in U.S. history, Americans may be about to elect a president whose signature issue is early childhood.

“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,” Hillary Clinton told The Hechinger Report in an exclusive email interview conducted through her campaign staff. “I’ve made a career out of fighting for children and families.”

And while that’s a great talking point, crafted by an experienced politician, it’s also true. Over the course of her 40-year career, Clinton has returned again and again to the trials and tribulations of the nation’s youngest. While at Yale Law School, she added an extra year to her studies to take courses in child development. As a young attorney, she worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy group. As first lady of Arkansas, she introduced the state to home visiting, a service for expectant and new mothers that has been shown to help women living in poverty raise healthier, more academically prepared kids.

Related: Read Hechinger’s full interview with Clinton

“Her leadership will matter because she’ll elevate it in conversations. But it doesn’t mean her way of doing it is the best way.”

And as the nation’s first lady, Clinton advocated for the passage of the 1997 State Child Health Insurance Program, which now covers about 8 million children, and she pushed for the creation of Early Head Start, a federally funded care and education program for infants and toddlers living in poverty. She also wrote her first book, “It Takes a Village,” about the importance of investing in young children.

In all her campaigns — from her 2000 Senate campaign to the current presidential race — Clinton has made paid parental leave and universal preschool key talking points.

“She’s been light-years ahead on the issue throughout her life,” said Neera Tanden, co-chair of the Clinton-Kaine Transition Project and president of the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy think tank. She’s also a rumored favorite for a position on Clinton’s potential White House staff. “Much of the country has now come to where [Clinton] was a long time ago,” Tanden said.

If it’s true that the public is finally ready to spend additional tax dollars on services for children in the earliest years of their lives, then a President Hillary Clinton could lead the massive overhaul we need to catch up with the rest of the developed world in our treatment of young children.

“We’re lucky to have one candidate who has a track record like that,” said Kris Perry, head of the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy group that advises both Republican and Democratic politicians on early childhood policy. Perry pointed out that if Clinton were to win the presidential election, she would likely have to work with a Republican House and Senate. “Her leadership will matter because she’ll elevate it in conversations,” Perry said. “But it doesn’t mean her way of doing it is the best way.”

The First Five Years Fund is betting that lawmakers from both parties will be more willing to work on the issue because of voters’ priorities, not because of presidential dictates. The group’s latest annual poll, conducted by two polling firms, Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, supports the idea that additional investment in young children is increasingly important to voters. In the nationally representative sample, 90 percent of voters across both parties agreed with the statement: “The next president and Congress should work together to make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable to low- and middle-income families.”

The support for taking action on early childhood remained bipartisan, even when pollsters specified that the federal government would be involved. Fifty-four percent of Republicans, 70 percent of independents and 91 percent of Democrats said they agreed that there should be “a federal plan to help states and local communities provide better access to early childhood education.”

“Even our angriest respondents think [Democrats and Republicans] should work together on this,” Perry said. And yes, they actually measured “anger” as part of the poll.

We shouldn’t be “pretending that we have a national public consensus about what needs to be done and that we know the right way to do it.”

Politicians seem to be listening. In addition to the dozens of governors and hundreds of state senators and representatives who have pushed for local changes in recent years, the issue has moved front and center in the presidential campaign in a way not seen for at least two decades. Even Donald Trump, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, put forward a proposal to reduce the cost of child care through tax deductions. (Experts on both sides of the aisle said his proposal would only help the upper-middle class and wealthy.) As Trump is not known for proposals meant to increase federal spending on social programs, the fact that he suggested a tax break to blunt the cost of child care was seen by many as a sign of how important the issue has become.

“At the highest level, early childhood is really moving into the spotlight,” said Katharine Stevens, a resident scholar and early childhood policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

And though Stevens managed to avoid mentioning Clinton’s name even once during a half hour interview about the future of early childhood policy, she did suggest that the candidate’s depth of knowledge and detailed proposals could be a disadvantage.

“I feel like if any candidate comes in pushing a particular set of solutions, it runs the risk of shutting down an important public conversation,” Stevens said.

early childhood education
A preschool student at P.S. 3 in Brooklyn reaches for his teacher’s hand. Caring for and educating young children are intimately tied together. Credit: Jamie Martines

That is certainly possible. It’s also possible that once Clinton raises preschool and other early childhood issues as president, she will again become the flashpoint for all the concerns we have historically had about women joining the workforce en masse and abandoning their children to the care of drab governmental institutions. Proposals to increase federally supported child care in the 1970s and again in the 1990s gained a lot of steam, but were ultimately defeated by concerns, raised mostly by the right, that such programs would lure women into jobs and away from motherhood.

“For the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach,” former President Richard Nixon wrote in his veto of a bipartisan bill that would have created universal child care in 1971. Nixon worried that the proposed expansion would replicate existing programs, create more bureaucracy and limit personal choice. He also acknowledged the need to provide better day care options for low-income mothers. “But our response to this challenge must be a measured, evolutionary, painstakingly considered one,” he wrote, “consciously designed to cement the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.”

75 percent — Percentage of child care workers who make less than $15 an hour.

Today, the question of whether government-supported care will change the underlying structure of family life feels moot. The structure has changed. In 2014, 65 percent of children lived in homes in which all available parents worked, according to the Kids Count Data Center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Many of those children are enrolled in preschools or day care centers where the quality varies greatly. Others are enrolled in home-based day care, have nannies or are cared for by non-working family members. The quality of those situations varies even more dramatically and is vastly more difficult to track or regulate. Regardless, the majority of the country’s parents are in need of someone other than themselves to care for and help educate their young children.

And yet, the kitchen table economics of the new American reality make less sense than ever. “Average weekly child care expenses for families with working mothers who paid for child care … rose more than 70 percent from 1985 ($87) to 2011 ($148),” states a summary of Census data by the Pew Research Center, a think tank. Among all American families with children younger than 5 who pay for child care, a full 9 percent of income is spent on child care costs, according to the Center for American progress. Many two-parent families with full-time jobs — those with two children, those living in major cities, and those earning minimum wage — are spending 20 percent or more of their income on child care.

Despite the crunch, 69 percent of wealthy children attend a center-based preschool, and 54 percent of middle class children attend such preschools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Not surprisingly, millennial mothers are more strongly in favor of creating paid family leave policies than older mothers.

For the working class and those living in poverty, the economics are even tougher. Such families spend up to 36 percent of their income on child care because there is not enough subsidized care. And not enough of what is available at the lower end of the price scale is high quality. As highlighted in the opening story of this series, the chance of a parent without a high school diploma finding a high quality child care setting they can afford is one in 10, according to Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, a think tank. And most of the best public systems, like Boston’s school-based preschool program, are not available during the evening and weekend hours when many lower income workers are working.

The one federal program for young children living in poverty, Head Start, helps prepare children for kindergarten, but is too small to serve every child eligible to participate. And nationally, the program has struggled to consistently offer top quality programs. A major study tracking children who attended Head Start in the early 2000s found that their academic achievements plateaued by third grade. As part of an ongoing effort to correct that, the federal Office of Head Start proposed sweeping changes on September 1 that would lengthen the school day and year and raise professional standards.

Meanwhile, less is known about the long-term impact of the program, though several recent studies have shown positive effects. One review of data released this summer compared children who attended Head Start with their siblings who did not and offered a compelling argument in favor of augmenting and improving the program rather than ditching it. Among other findings, the study found Head Start children had a higher high school graduation rate, by 5 percentage points, than their non-Head Start siblings.

early childhood education
Specific compliments for newly gained skills decorate the walls in a Colorado Preschool Program classroom at Eyestone Elementary School in the Poudre School District. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

“Third-grade test scores are only one thing that we care about,” said Diane Schanzenbach, director of the Hamilton Project at The Brookings Institute, the think tank that conducted the recent study. “We care more about the long-term impact on young kids.”

Meanwhile, the people entrusted to make that impact are not faring well overall. Wages for the women (97 percent of the early childhood workforce is female) looking after young children are shockingly low. Three quarters make less than $15 an hour. Nearly half, 46 percent, of child care workers are reliant on taxpayer funded subsidies to make ends meet. Offering such low wages makes it difficult to retain the best, most educated providers. And attempts to improve teacher quality have backfired when those who earn degrees or other advanced certifications move on to higher paying jobs. It’s impossible to improve quality without addressing the salaries and working conditions of preschool teachers and other early childhood caregivers, said Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

“She’s been light-years ahead on the issue throughout her life.”

Overall, children younger than age five are treated entirely differently by society at large than children age 5 and older. “No parent is going to hear ‘there’s no room for your second grader’ or ‘you don’t have enough money to come here,’” Whitebook said, “but in early childhood those things are happening all the time.”

Given no other option, parents do what they can to shoulder the costs. Sometimes that means leaving the workforce entirely. Mothers, who are more likely to take time off work to care for young children, can be hit particularly hard by the unforgiving math. According to a calculator created by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, the amount women stand to lose over a lifetime by taking off a few years to care for kids is far more than the cost of child care.

If a 31-year-old woman making $55,000 a year took just one year off to care for a child at age 33, she would stand to lose a total of $148,636 in wages, wage growth and benefits (including retirement benefits) over the course of her life. If she stayed home for longer, say five years, the loss grows to $656,769. That money would also fail to circulate in the economy at large and fail to benefit local, state and federal governments in the form of income tax revenue.

Of course, staying in a job that pays less than the cost of care isn’t an economically sound decision either.

“My big takeaway from that tool is that if you don’t have the resources to put in on the front end, you don’t get the benefit” either financially or in terms of your child’s well-being, said Katie Hamm, senior director of early childhood policy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the political arm of the think tank.

Parents of young children, by virtue of their own age, are less likely to be able to afford child care costs than to afford college costs on the other end, Hamm says. In many states the cost of private child care equals the cost of public college tuition. Yet, far more is spent on financial aid for higher education than is spent on subsidizing early education. That holds true even for the poorest children. Despite the fact that more young children than teenagers live in poverty, the federal government spends three times as much on tuition coverage for poor college students in the form of Pell Grants than it does on Head Start for 3- and 4-year-olds.

early childhood education
Outdoor gear awaits use by the students of The Red House, a for-profit private center in Bristol, England. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

“We have a huge disconnect between when people need money to invest in their kids and when they have the most resources in their life cycle,” Hamm said.

Early education advocates have a whole raft of ideas to change that, from paid parental leave to expanded Early Head Start to universal preschool access. All of the proposals, including the one from the liberal Center for American Progress, are modest in comparison to what’s happening in Europe and much of the rest of the developed world.

Clinton has proposed subsidizing child care and preschool directly and through tax credits — which apply to income earners at every level — so that no family spends more than 10 percent of its income on child care. She’d like to expand Early Head Start and to provide states with more money to help them offer better and broader preschool programs. She’d also like to continue the expansion of home-visiting services started under the Obama Administration, create a national program to raise the quality of early education instruction and to offer every new parent 12 weeks of paid leave.

90 percent — Percentage of voters, across both parties, who agreed with the statement: “Congress and the next president should work together to make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable to low- and middle-income 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,” Clinton told The Hechinger Report.

Taken together, Clinton’s proposals would revolutionize how we treat young children in America. And yet, even if the country acted on every single proposal, it would still be far behind a country like England, which educates its 4-year-olds at no direct cost to its citizens, subsidizes fully half of the cost of 3-year-old care for every parent and is beginning to cover care for 2-year-olds from lower income homes. That’s all on top of the fact that new parents in England get nine months of partially paid leave plus three more months of unpaid leave. To be sure, taxpayers cover these costs. And while England’s offerings are only average in Europe, it would take a complete overhaul of our tax code to bring in the revenue needed to get to the same point.

Perhaps because of that massive hurdle and the collective agreement among politicians that raising taxes is verboten, American thinkers on early education, regardless of party affiliation or ideological background, seem loathe to propose more dramatic changes.

Hamm, of the Center for American Progress, simply doesn’t think more is possible given the current financial situation.

“We were thinking about the cost and thinking about who is in most need of child care,” said Hamm, explaining the preschool policy proposal she and her colleagues put out last year, which looks very similar to Clinton’s. Hamm said she’d rather give a full 40 hours per week of care to the children who need it most than give 15 hours of care to everyone. “We chose to target the funding on lower income and middle class side of things,” she said.

early childhood education
Lady Bird Johnson, a great champion of “Project Head Start” during her time as first lady, visits a classroom at the Kemper School in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Credit: White House Photo Office Collection

Stevens, of the American Enterprise Institute on the opposite end of the political spectrum, urges caution for another reason. The conversation about the need for a better child care solution is just picking up steam, she said, and it needs time to develop into consensus.

“I think we need to be thinking more in terms of pilot projects and support and incentives for states to be experimenting with things,” Stevens said, “rather than pretending that we have a national public consensus about what needs to be done and that we know the right way to do it.”

It would be incorrect to say the complete overhaul of early childhood policy that Clinton is proposing would be impossible. Getting to the moon, which is a whopping 238,900 miles away, seemed impossible too, until we invested the time money and energy needed to develop the right equipment to make it happen.

The ability of former President John F. Kennedy to rally the country around that single cause created a wave of popular and political will strong enough to build the nation’s first space program and to invest millions of dollars in schools and universities to foster the scientific know-how needed to make the endeavor successful. Clinton says she’ll do the same thing for preschool, and all the supporting early childhood and family policies that go with it.

“I’ve made a career out of fighting for children and families,” Clinton told The Hechinger Report. “As your President, I’ll fight every single day to make America the best place in the world to raise a family.”

Perhaps she will. She’ll have her work cut out for her. The distance between where we are now and where she’d need to lead us to catch up with the rest of developed world might as well be 238,900 miles away.

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.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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