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early education
Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden (L) is greeted by children as he arrives in Duluth, Minnesota, on September 18, 2020. Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, President-elect Joe Biden announced he would seek to expand the child tax credit and make a $40 billion investment in child care as part of a broader Covid relief and recovery package. He  invited Americans to imagine how a stronger “caregiving economy” could help enhance our nation’s security, promote family well-being and ensure child care providers have access to the “pay and dignity that they deserve.”

We applaud the Biden administration for taking this important and profound first step toward investing in children’s early experiences and education, a key mechanism for strengthening the economy and improving the lives of American families.

 It couldn’t come at a more urgent time for millions of our fellow citizens who need access to better, more affordable child care. Now, with Biden’s inauguration imminent, the longer-term planning, case-making and implementation work must also begin. Support for early education and care can’t stop at critical, short-term financial relief. Our full participation in work and community life, children’s healthy development and the economy’s success will depend on the effective execution of a comprehensive, forward-facing early education and care agenda.

In Massachusetts, only about 55 percent of families use formal care, while 45 percent rely on parental care or informal arrangements like home-based or non-parental relative care. A comprehensive approach is needed to better meet children and families where they are.

And a successful rollout of this agenda is possible. The new administration can capitalize on the bipartisan popularity of investments in children’s earliest years. It can approach high-quality early learning experiences as a critical piece of infrastructure that benefits children, families andthe economy. And it can fund these experiences as a public good.

Critically, the Biden administration can also learn from a long history of presidential agendas and ambitions in this domain —many of which have fallen short of their promise because of key pitfalls. Here, we examine these pitfalls with an eye toward a strong path forward.

Related: How the gig economy puts children’s development at risk and what we can do about it

  • Early education and care plans have too often been anchored in sweeping promises without attention to their feasibility and implementation. Big, visionary ideas are essential for motivating and shaping change, and leaders have long made such promises about expanding child care options to support working families. But more often than not, these promises have been incredibly difficult to keep. For example, former President Barack Obama committed to providing “all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool” — an admirable goal, but one that faced steep challenges from the start given its sheer size and complexity. Ultimately, the plan did not accomplish all it intended to do. An ambitious vision, coupled with nuanced, feasible and detailed plans, will lead to meaningful and sustainable improvement across the early education field.
  • Plans to improve the early education and care system have often created or reinforced a (false) divide between informal and formal child care settings, both of which are important for today’s families. Many former presidents have focused on expanding access to specific programs that often serve small numbers of children, like Head Start or public school pre-K, without paying explicit attention to strengthening all care types across the system. Data collected through our statewide, longitudinal study shows that in Massachusetts, only about 55 percent of families use formal care, while 45 percent rely on parental care or informal arrangements like home-based or non-parental relative care. A comprehensive approach is needed to better meet children and families where they are.
  • Leaders have often focused their case-making on longer-term benefits of high-quality early education and care, overlooking today’s immediate needs and most compelling arguments. In his 2002 State of the Union Address, former President George W. Bush framed child care investments around academic success: “We need to prepare our children to read and succeed in school.” In 2013, former President Obama pointed to even longer-term benefits: “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

    These arguments are important, but they are incomplete. The most compelling reasons to invest in child care relate to the everyday — from meeting children’s needs to providing reliable child care options for the more than 75 percent of parents of young children who work or are looking for work, through to leveraging early education as a tool for promoting equity. To capture the hearts and minds of policymakers and the public — and to shift the narrative to one based in today’s realities — leaders must make the case in more immediate and universally motivating terms.
  • Early education and care plans have often failed to leverage new and compelling data to inform an expansion strategy. While leaders frequently cite studies conducted decades ago to support case-making efforts, they often leave out current science. Recent and ongoing research provides more clarity about what works and for whom, with careful attention to today’s demographics and contexts. A new administration can and should create a more actionable link between science and decision-making to fuel smarter, more sustainable decisions and investments. As part of this strategy, plans should focus on expansion and quality improvement across the entire early education and care system instead of prioritizing only specific program types.
  • Early education and care plans have often centered on children — without a focus on the adults who drive the quality of settings. It may seem counterintuitive to make adults a central focus of any early education agenda. But in reality, we cannot make a lasting impact by developing plans that skip over the adults — the very linchpins of the system’s success. While many policymakers have supported training opportunities (for example, former President Bill Clinton’s commitment to funding scholarships for providers) or articulated quality standards (for example, former President George W. Bush’s focus on helping states develop early learning guidelines or former President Obama’s focus on quality rating and improvement systems), these efforts have often lacked a focus on innovative approaches to adult capacity-building, like sustained, job-embedded and collaborative professional learning opportunities, which are commonplace in many other sectors.

By learning from the past and embracing a forward-thinking, nuanced caregiving agenda, the Biden administration can create a stronger and more resilient system — one that achieves the ambitious goal of “building back better” for the benefit of all.

Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones are  professors at Harvard University and co-directors of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. Emily Wiklund Hayhurst is the assistant director of learning design and communications for the initiative.

This story about early education under President-elect Joe Biden was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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