America’s system for funding early childhood education isn’t ultimately one system so much as it is a tangle of different systems applied through different means in different states toward, ostensibly, the same end of ensuring better childhood outcomes. At any given time in any given state, a model is being nitpicked by activists or lawmakers, but, zooming out, it becomes clear that the lack of anything resembling national consensus has all but guaranteed that the discussion remains disjointed at a national level and extraordinarily difficult for voters, who seem to understand that early education has a massive effect on the wellbeing of children.
Early childhood education programs massively improve child development. The support systems that are provided by prekindergarten programs help kids gain verbal and cognitive networks, make friends with peers, and build architecture and circuitry in their brains. Preschool gives kids a stronger neural network that makes them better learners for the rest of their lives. The U.S. Government invests $37 billion annually in early childhood programs. That’s considerably less than half a percentage of American GDP, which puts the spending at about a third of the spending in Scandinavian countries and lower, by percent, than Mexico, Japan, and most of Europe.
To answer the seemingly simple question of how America funds early education, one must bounce around the country. Some states, such as Florida, provide universal pre-kindergarten for all kids. Others, such as Idaho, provide zero state funding at all for early education. Only 10 states use models that are similar to K-12 funding programs and largely immune from the effects of economic downturns. Several other states lean heavily on Head Start, a federal program, and block grants.
“Calling child-care a patchwork is definitely a good way to describe it,” says Kim Dancy, a senior policy analyst of educational policy at New America. “Childcare has evolved as a result of changes in the labor market. As women have entered the workforce and there are more single parents, there are not as many options for them to just stay home.”
Unfortunately, labor markets vary widely and charge markedly over time. A generation ago, it was fairly easy to guess what a middle class person in Detroit did for a living. Today, not so much. What does this mean for early childhood education? That’s because it’s inconsistent over time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it further confounds an issue that is already insanely complex. After all, education funding isn’t only inconsistent between states, it’s also inconsistent inside the large majority of states, which often, but not always, decide how much money to put into essential programs year by year. When funding for public education is subject to the whims of profit and the economy kids are the ones who suffer most.
“There hasn’t been a coherent and intentional way of saying, this is a thing that a lot of parents need,” says Dancy. “We should set it up intentionally to make sure that people have access to the care that they want and that the care is high quality, instead of fragmentary initiatives on the parts of a bunch of different factors.”
Consider such federal programs as Head Start, which pours about $7 billion dollars a year into early childhood education, exclusively focus on providing access to kids who are far below the poverty line or have special needs. “Head Start is provided to low-income children in order that they might have access to care. That’s usually funded through contracts with providers from the federal government,” says Dancy. It’s one of the only big federal programs that helps fund early childhood education. The rest is usually done on a state level.
Of the very few states that provide state-level funding or match funds with federal dollars for children of all incomes, the large portion of that is done through annual budgetary appropriations, where lawmakers get together and decide how much money of the budget they will move to early education, based on budget surplus and money in the coffers. Educational need is not part of the math.
A good portion of these budgetary appropriations are done through block-grants, or sums of money that are allocated each year en masse. They are used in several different ways, including subsidizing education costs to kids. These are utilized by states like Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and more, are occasionally used in conjunction with other types of funding. Over half of local pre-school funding is through what is known as “capped grants,” a type of block grant, that is also not need-based for public preschools. This creates real hazards. The state of Kansas fell short nearly two million dollars in block grant funding from 2015 to 2017.
Where early childhood education programs aren’t funded through block grants, they are often funded through taxes, like “sin” taxes — on beer or cigarettes — and property taxes.
Funding for pre-kindergarten has naturally grown to be a patchwork of laws that provided more coverage over time, as more households shifted from a single breadwinner to two working parents.
“The response to that has come in different pieces,” says Dancy. “The federal angle has typically been about access for low-income children. There’s still a lot of pressure for middle-income families in terms of paying for this huge expense.” This leads a lot of middle-income earners to weigh whether or not it’s worth it to have one parent become a stay-at-home child rearer. “That is a question that a lot of families struggle with.”
That shift has been gradual and state governments have been slow to fill that gap. As a result, parents, regardless of their work schedules, are left with few options. The fortunate few live in cities and neighborhoods that provide universal or near-universal programs. But for people who don’t have access to subsidized grants or universal pre-kindergarten and can’t pay for private pre-school — a considerable number of parents — there’s no clear solution to the problem. Choices get tough. And there’s no wonder as to why. The system, such as it is, was created to stabilize labor markets and serve employers. It wasn’t created for parents — much less kids.