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These days, child care is not just on the minds of busy parents — it’s also on the minds of those at the center of this election cycle.

Across the United States, presidential candidates are proposing plans that will increase access to affordable child care for families with young children. For example, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand — in part driven by their own experiences as working mothers, and building on momentum in states and cities like Oklahoma, Washington, D.C., and New York — are proposing huge investments in programs to create more affordable, high-quality preschool options for families with young children.

We applaud candidates for prioritizing this issue that affects millions of Americans and is critically important to our children’s success and our nation’s economy. Many families today are seeking some form of care outside the home in the years before school, and children’s rapidly growing brains need safe, stimulating environments to promote development during these foundational and formative years.

There is no question that today’s parents struggle to find safe, affordable and nurturing places for children to spend their days while parents pursue employment or education; for example, 51 percent of Americans live in “child care deserts,” where licensed centers can accommodate fewer than a third of the children in the community.

Even when families do secure a spot, paying for it is another challenge. In many cases, the annual costs can be as much as a year of college tuition. And for parents who do qualify for subsidies through the federal child care voucher program, it can be difficult to find a spot in a program that accepts the voucher; only about 1 in 8 eligible children is actually served this way.  These scenarios create many challenges for today’s families with young children.

Related: To smooth transitions from home to pre-K to kindergarten, states must invest in every aspect of early ed

So, as presidential candidates propose plans, there is a clear and immediate need to increase access — expanding the availability of care for young children — and to make such care more affordable. In the short term, this is crucial.

Julián Castro’s proposed “Pre-K for USA” program would expand access to full-day, high-quality public pre-k to every 3- and 4-year-old in the country, while also supporting teacher training, increased home visiting for infants and toddlers, and alignment of pre-k curricula to the K-12 system. Bernie Sanders similarly calls for high-quality, affordable early childhood education. Elizabeth Warren’s Universal Child Care and Early Learning proposal would use federal funds, generated through an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax,” to subsidize care for families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The plan also caps costs for families whose income is above that threshold and provides professional supports and pay increases for teachers and child care providers.

These plans and others also need to address a second issue: to improve the quality of existing programs. In national quality ratings, only a handful of states have child care systems that meet all benchmarks, and only about 20 percent of U.S. programs are considered “high-quality.” For this reason, on the campaign trail, some of the presidential candidates’ plans also seek to improve quality, most often by pledging more professional development for the care providers who do the work each day. Quality improvement initiatives are as important as addressing issues of access and affordability.

But there is one more ingredient vital to an expanded, high-quality system of early education and care across the country: a new science and research base. This might come as a surprise to some. But unlike other fields that have practice at the core and a strong research base to inform quality improvement, including K-12 education and health care, there is not yet a sufficient evidence base on which to build and scale high-quality practice across early education and care settings.

Related: How cities are convincing voters to pay higher taxes for public preschool

We are working to build this science. Borrowing from approaches in public health and medicine, we are conducting a large-scale study across an entire state to inform quality improvement and better policymaking. The study was intentionally designed to include a large, representative sample of children who reflect today’s demographics as well as the variety and types of settings that make up today’s early education and care landscape.

As part of the study, we are documenting and describing children’s daily care environments, to make links between features of these environments and children’s learning and growth to address pressing questions. In other words, we’re asking: What are the key features across all different types of early education and care settings that matter most for promoting healthy development?

We are taking on this question in an effort to build a larger, higher-quality and more affordable system of early education and care. We know that today’s families need care for their young children, and we know that strong early learning opportunities can be a difference-maker in young children’s lives.

With their commitments and a new science, today’s presidential candidates can live up to their campaign promises by creating smart, sustainable policies that will support families and set young children on a path toward academic and personal success.

This story about U.S. presidential candidates and early education proposals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Nonie Lesaux is a professor at Harvard University and co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

Stephanie Jones is a professor at Harvard University and co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

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