A little more than a month ago, President Biden announced his American Jobs Plan, which includes $25 billion to invest in facilities upgrades in child care settings and to build the supply of infant and toddler care. The plan also includes investments to replace all lead pipes and service lines in drinking water systems to ensure no child is at risk of exposure to lead. When combined with investments in making child care more affordable for families and supporting compensation for the child care workforce, these investments could have a transformative impact on the lives of children, families and providers.
There is a demonstrated need to make investments in the physical infrastructure of child care facilities, including center-based care, licensed family child care homes and license-exempt home-based care offered by a family, friend or neighbor. We not only need more of these facilities, but many existing ones need improvement.
In mid-April, the Biden administration released state-by-state summaries on child care availability, which included statistics on the prevalence of child care deserts — areas where child care slots are insufficient to reach at least one-third of young children under age five. In more than one in five states, 60% or more of the residents live in a child care desert. In Utah and Nevada, over 70% of residents live in a child care desert.
Children should be able to play and learn in environments that support their healthy growth and development.
In addition, we know that many children are at risk of lead exposure in child care, particularly children of color and children from families with low incomes. Research by Child Care Aware of America shows that hundreds of thousands of children in subsidized child care — which serves children from low-income working families — are at high-risk for lead exposure. Replacing all lead-based pipes and service lines would eliminate that risk.
As policymakers debate how to move forward on this pressing need, here are a few considerations for the administration and Congress to ensure that states maximize any investment in the physical infrastructure of our child care facilities.
Assess Need and Target Investments Where They’re Needed Most. For K-12 public schools, the Government Accountability Office has regularly conducted surveys to determine the condition of facilities, most recently identifying the number and categories of building systems needing updates or replacement. There is no similar research for child care facilities, and according to the Low Income Investment Fund, there is no comprehensive, nationally representative data available on the condition and quality of child care facilities. States will need to conduct comprehensive needs assessments of their own facilities. They should then use that data to help target investments in communities that have the greatest need, particularly those communities and populations that have historically lacked access to quality care.
Use Investments to Build Provider Supply. Covid-19 has decimated the supply of child care in communities across the country, and there are 100,000 fewer child care workers now than a year ago. States will need to build the supply of care for young children; this may include increasing capacity among current providers. States will also need to recruit new providers into the sector, and do so in an equitable manner, so that any new supply includes home-based providers and ensures that all early educators are paid a living wage, are provided benefits and have access to higher education and degree attainment tied to increases in compensation.
Drive Investments to Family, Friend and Neighbor Care. A central focus of the American Jobs Plan’s child care investments is on building the supply of infant and toddler care. That will require a recognition and commitment to meet these children where they are. About half of all the infants and toddlers who require nonparental care are cared for in homes. And the majority of those young children are in family, friend and neighbor (FFN) care settings. These providers are typically legally exempt from licensure requirements and, because of that, are often overlooked when investments are made for quality improvement. States should be deliberate in their planning to ensure that FFN settings are included in any efforts to upgrade child care facilities.
See What’s Worked. Many states will need to create systems devoted to child care infrastructure, and those systems will need to provide a range of support to meet providers’ varying needs, from one-time startup costs to access to loans for capital improvements. A few states have already developed programs to meet such needs, and other states should consider learning from those efforts. For instance, California has a revolving loan fund for child care facilities that provides funding for renovation and repair as well as for the acquisition of relocatable buildings. Maryland provides modest grants to cover the startup costs associated with opening a home-based child care setting. Washington offers both grants and loans for the expansion, purchase or construction of early learning facilities. And Massachusetts offers grants to offset the costs of capital improvements.
Many of these issues are addressed in the Child Care is Infrastructure Act, which was recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and has drawn widespread support. This act should serve as a model for any legislation contemplated by Congress in the context of the American Jobs Plan’s child care investments.
Of course, other investments are necessary to build a more equitable system of child care. But making essential upgrades to facilities is critical in building that more equitable system of care. Children should be able to play and learn in environments that support their healthy growth and development. Investments in child care facilities will help meet that goal and are long overdue.
Mario Cardona is the chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware of America and served as the senior policy advisor for elementary and secondary education on President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council.
This story about child care facilities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.