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How to Vote for Universal Pre-K and Against Rising Child Care Costs

It may not seem like it, but your vote can directly affect childcare funding across the country and in your state.

This month, Child Care Aware, a child care policy organization, released a massive study on the state of child care in America. Here’s the summary: It’s bad and expensive. The average annual cost of child care is higher than $5,800 in every single state and way higher than that in many. Some center-based infant daycares now charge $17,000. Pre-kindergarten costs are skyrocketing. In the United States, only one in three kids who enter kindergarten attended a formal pre-kindergarten program. Meanwhile, in Denmark, 98 percent of kids from 3 to 5 have attended a pre-school program. In some of these countries, pre-school is seen as a legal right, one that is protected by public funding, and the programs are offered equally to kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds, rather than needs-based programs like Head Start.

According to CCA, the average cost of infant care exceeds 27 percent of the median household income for single working parents in every single state. Though block grants and federal programs exist, parents are left to navigate a confusing patchwork of policy that offers financial assistance in pieces in lieu of a larger solution. Many federally funded subsidies are only aimed at working-class parents. These help, but also leave middle-class parents in the lurch. The solution floated by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and former President Obama is universal pre-k. There is reason to believe it might make a truly massive difference to American parents.

That said, universal pre-k is not on the ballot. Still, there are a number of ballot measures aimed at reducing childcare costs and moving states in the direction of universal pre-k. Here’s how voters can support that shift:

How Childcare and Pre-K Gets Funded

Parents who have already wrestled with understanding child care options and federal tax credits, Head Start, Block Grants, and budgetary appropriations, know how confusing getting federally subsidized childcare can be. For those who are on the cusp of sending their kids off to a daycare center or a pre-k, this can be both unknown and deeply confusing territory. Here are the basics:

Child Care Tax Credit: The CCTC is a beloved program that allows parents to file tax refunds for up to $2,000 based on child care spending. The only problem with this provision is that it requires that parents have 2,000 dollars to spend and that they ask for it back. This policy also does not provide for families of four or more.

Federal Funding: The federal government funds ECE and Universal-Pre K (or subsidized pre-k) largely through needs-based programs like Head Start, which pours $7 billion a year into early childhood education and childcare. These programs focus exclusively on kids who are well below the poverty line and leave out middle-class parents who neither earn enough to afford child care and ECE centers or fall far enough below the poverty line to qualify for Head Start.

There is currently no comprehensive federally funded program to give all parents access to affordable childcare.

State Funding: About half of funds for early childhood education and preschool programs come from state-level funding — a far cry from K-12 education which is funded largely from local taxes and state resources. The lack of a state prioritization on funding early childhood education is clear from the sources that they use to fund the program. In general, the vast majority of pre-k funding and early childhood education funding and childcare funding come from budgetary appropriations. Budgetary appropriations are funds that are allocated based on what is available — these are not set and they vary from year to year. Other funding comes from sin taxes on alcohol and cigarettes or from lotteries.

Block-grant programs take the form of sums of money that are allocated each year en masse. This generally subsidizes the costs of education and half of these grant programs are “capped grants,” which, unlike Head Start, are not needs-based funds and instead just give money according to what’s available. Funds for these programs have a curious way of disappearing.

What’s Available In My State? What’s The State of Funding?

The Education Commission Of The States released a study in January of 2017 that laid out the state of play, so to speak, in early childhood education for every state in the country. Every single state is on the list and the amount of funding they get from programs like Head Start, or other state-level programs is listed, as well as the change in funding dollars year over year from 2015 to 2017. Six states — Montana, Idaho, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, provide no funding or programs at all in 2017. The worst drop in funding from 2016 to 2017 was North Dakota: three million dollars that was once appropriated for ECE and Pre-K programs were dropped entirely. The runner-up is Kansas, a state that provides two state-funded pre-k programs and an early childhood block grant. Funding fell for the block grants by 2.4 million dollars between 2016 and 2017. But many states are prioritizing childcare funding: Alabama added 16 million in funding between those years; California over 90 million; Illinois, over 79 million dollars. It’s clear that red or blue is not what matters. People across the political aisle appropriate funds for these programs. The problem is, more generally, that funding can vary so greatly year over year.

Check out the Politicians

Hint: everyone supports these programs. The question isn’t whether politicians support these programs, but rather how the politician proposes to move money or allocate it. Republicans, for the most part, tend to support programs that would give a great deal of flexibility to parents either through childcare spending accounts or increases in the childcare tax credit. (For what it’s worth, that tax credit enjoys nearly universal support.) Democrats, on the other hand, tend to tout programs like universal pre-k, that provide all parents, regardless of income, with quality access to full-day programs. There are virtues to both approaches, but there is also evidence to support the idea that universal pre-k offers better value to more parents.

How to figure out which politicians are pursuing your preferred policy? Look no further than the…

Child Care For Working Families Act: The 2017 Child Care Affordability Act was introduced in October of 2017 and, beyond being introduced to the House floor, has moved nowhere. However, that bill would have been a massive help to working parents everywhere. The key foundations of those policies would make child care an entitlement, making accessibility and affordability a guarantee for parents in the same way that Social Security or Medicare is guaranteed to all of us. It would ensure that no low to moderate income family pays more than 7 percent of its household income on child care, support programs that have before and after school and summer care for school-aged children, provide inclusive care for kids with disabilities, provide evidence-based standards for child care centers and early childhood education programs, require vigorous training for educators and caregivers, require that states match funds to the federal programs, and more. The program differed from what Republicans would focus on, which is why it was dead on arrival; Republicans would prefer to fund child care and early childhood education through tax credits, as previously discussed. This is entirely a spending bill. It would have been a good one.

It was introduced by Senators Murray, Casey, Hirono, Franken, Schumer, Leahy, Feinstein, Wyden, Durbin, Menendez, Klobuchar, Merkley, Gillibrand, Blumenthal, Baldwin, Murphy, Heinrich, Warren, Markey, Booker, Van Hollen, Duckworth, Hassan, Harris, Reed, Udall, and Brown. That’s 27 senators, but the bill went nowhere. Still, a vote to support a senator who tried to push this legislation forward is a vote for the agenda if not for the bill.

As Always, Check Candidates’ Issues Pages:

The best bet is always to get familiar with who is running and, of course, their platforms. Do they have a specific plan for making childcare more affordable for working parents? Do they say they support universal pre-k? Do they want to help parents get flexible tax credits and spending money in order to get access to programs in their state or county?

The more specific the plan, the better — at least in the sense of clarity. It’s one thing to mention affordability of programs, but that doesn’t explain how child care or universal pre-k will become accessible to parents. Does a politician’s platform mention the number of centers and schools? Quality of training? Program types? If this is a critical issue for a politician, their prescription will be highly specific (and probably slightly hard to follow).

If You’re Still Not Sure, Ask

Child Care Aware’s RaeAnn Pickett suggests several modes of inquiry for parents who are interested in knowing more about how officials running for their vote think and prioritize affordable child care should ask these questions:

  1. Child care is unaffordable for a majority of families across the country. If elected, what will you do to alleviate the cost burden of childcare on families?
  2. We know high-quality early experiences have a lasting positive impact on children. If elected, what will you do to ensure child care is high quality and responsive to families’ needs?
  3.   Not only is childcare expensive, it can be hard to find. There is a child care supply gap in the United States. If elected, what will you do to increase the supply of childcare in our community and ensure families have access to child care that fits their needs?
  4. On average, child care professionals make much less than their public school counterparts and can barely make ends meet themselves. If elected, what would you do to increase wages for child care providers?