Joe Biden is on his way to becoming the “Care President.” After getting a desperately needed $39 billion for child care stabilization into the American Rescue Plan, the administration put $25 billion for child care facilities into the American Jobs Plan and, according to a report from the Washington Post, is likely to propose hundreds of billions more to support the sector while bringing down costs to families.
In one major way, however, the Biden administration’s actions threaten to carry on a harmful disparity: Preschool and child care are being treated as separate enterprises of different value, when in fact preschool is simply one version of child care. The president himself poured salt into this old wound when he said in December, “I’m not talking about day care. I’m talking about universal pre-K that is starting at age three, four.”
“Pre-K” and “preschool” are terms generally used to describe formal programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. “Child care” is a term generally used to describe any non-parental care setting, particularly for children under age five; these are typically fee-based. While many preschool programs are private and operate under the same conditions as any other child care program, Biden is proposing to vastly expand publicly funded preschools, which are typically free, pay their teachers more and follow a certain set of academic standards. Currently, only 34 percent of American 4-year-olds (and 6 percent of 3-year-olds) attend such a program.
While public preschool programs can be excellent options, pursuing two separate funding buckets — one just for public preschool, the other for all child care — is a poor way to address parents’ diverse child care needs across the early childhood years.
As historian Sonya Michel has explained, the earliest child cares were known as day nurseries, and they were founded in the late 19th century as a reluctant charity for women who were forced to work due to widowhood or divorce. They were poorly funded, poorly maintained and horrifically overcrowded — one adult could be responsible for 25 to 35 children under the age of 5! These programs were forced to be truly little more than holding pens.
In contrast, Michel writes, the leaders of the forerunners to preschool programs — known as nursery schools — “took pains to differentiate their institutions from day nurseries. They feared that association with these ‘custodial’ institutions would not only discourage the middle-class clientele they were hoping to attract but would also cast suspicion on the lofty educational benefits nursery schools purported to offer.” From the very start, Michel says, child care was treated as preschool’s “poor cousin.”
Pursuing two separate funding buckets — one just for public preschool, the other for all child care — is a poor way to address parents’ diverse child care needs across the early childhood years.
Child care programs have, of course, come a long way since the holding-pen era. Child cares are now fairly tightly regulated, and every state has established maximum child-to-adult ratios. Robust professional associations and standards of practice exist. And many child cares include preschool programs! Indeed, most private preschools are licensed in their states as child care programs. Quality does, however, continue to vary widely, and some states still allow one adult to watch quite a lot of kids — all the more reason significant federal funding is needed.
Importantly, the type of care setting matters far less than what is happening inside. We now know that care and learning are inextricably linked, a vital truth of child development that blows up any distinction between “early childhood education” and “child care.” The research base suggests that secure emotional attachment and its related gains in executive functioning (the ability to calm oneself down, concentrate on a task, work in a group, etc.) are what primarily drives later educational success — not whether you learn the alphabet at age three. That said, learning is pervasive everywhere: Research has shown that teachers in a strong majority of both formal and informal programs read to and do math activities with children daily.
The separate valuation of child care and public preschool has very real consequences. A teacher in a public preschool program, by dint of being attached to the K-12 school system, is paid vastly more than a private preschool or child care teacher working with the same ages. The median hourly wage for child care teachers is $11.65. In school-based preschool settings, it’s $26.95. This pay disparity helps explain why a recent study in Louisiana found that, stunningly, nearly half of child care teachers leave each year, versus only a quarter of public preschool teachers.
While funding universal public preschool would make it possible to better pay teachers serving 3- and 4-year-olds and cut parent fees, leaving infants and toddlers out would be a mistake. An effective system must seamlessly arc through the early childhood years. It makes little sense to treat one age band and setting so differently when we know that brain development is cumulative, children can thrive in any high-quality program and parents’ child care needs start well before age three. “When public investments are siloed to a specific age group, there can be unintended consequences, which ultimately have the greatest impact on parents who are already stressed in the earliest months and years of caring for a child,” writes Gerry Cobb, director of the Pritzker Children’s Initiative.
Just a few months into his presidency, Biden — bolstered by legislative champions like Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rosa DeLauro — has made tremendous, historic moves to support child care and the broader care economy. He deserves enormous praise and plaudits. The time has now come for the president and his administration to make history in another way: putting to rest, at long last, the anachronistic, insulting and damaging distinction between pre-K and child care to create a system that works for all families and all ages.
Elliot Haspel is the author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”
This story about child care and preschools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.