Affordability and quality—attainable goals for an effective early care and education system

Last month, Senator Warren (D-Mass.) and Representative Haaland (D-N.M.) introduced the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act. The legislation sets out to tackle the two-pronged problem with the current early care and education (ECE) system in the Unites States today: affordability and quality. Current funding for the ECE system is insufficient because what parents can afford to pay is simply not enough to provide early educators with a fair wage and ensure high-quality care and education for young children.

The lack of affordability for families has been well-documented. EPI has consolidated information from a variety of sources and crunched the numbers on affordability for each state into handy child care fact sheets. There, you can see just how hard it is for families to pay for ECE for one, let alone two children. And, the problem of affordability isn’t limited to low-income families. In Arizona, the state with the median (middle) value of infant care costs across the nation, a typical family with children would have to pay 20 percent of their income for infant care. The cost is more than one year of in-state tuition for a four-year public college and greatly exceeds the recommended affordability standard of 7 percent.

The proposed legislation tackles affordability by setting limits on how much parents need to pay out of pocket for care. Those with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty line (about $40,000 for a two-parent one child family) are fully subsidized, while expenses are capped on a graduated basis up to 7 percent of income for the highest earners. This payment structure recognizes that affordability issues persist in not just the poorest of families but many middle-income families as well.

What is particularly groundbreaking about Senator Warren and Representative Haaland’s proposal is its focus on quality. The legislation sets standards for facilities, acknowledging not only that low ratios of children to teachers are important, but also that high-quality care is essential for social, emotional, and mental development. The problems with the current ECE system don’t end with ensuring affordability. Parents want high-quality options and are often faced with long waiting lists even when they can afford care. As it turns out, to get quality, you need to be willing to pay for it. Because you need to pay to attract and retain early educators, the proposed legislation requires that those workers have pay that is “comparable with the rates of compensation paid to employees of the corresponding local educational agency with similar training, seniority, and experience,” that is, on par with public school teachers.

In a report co-released earlier this week with the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, we discuss the importance of aligning costs with values and lay out the key principles for an effective ECE system. Our principles include the following requirements:

  • Young children—regardless of age or setting—need well-prepared teachers.
  • To attract and retain highly skilled teachers, an early care and education system must offer fair wages, benefits, and working conditions.
  • To provide high-quality care and education, reasonable limits should be placed on the number of children per teacher and sufficient staffing should be maintained to ensure adequate coverage at all times.
  • Teachers must be allotted adequate time during which they do not have responsibility for children, so that they can take care of other professional responsibilities as well as obtain further professional development.
  • Program administrators and other key personnel must also have fair pay and healthy working conditions.
  • To meet the increased demand for services anticipated once a stronger system is in place, the pipeline of highly qualified and committed teachers must be increased.

These principles strongly resemble the values which appear to guide the recently proposed legislation. Unfortunately, the current ECE system continues to shortchange children, families, and teachers. Creating a values-based budget for early care and education—like estimated for California’s ECE system—requires aligning costs with what is actually needed. Early care and education should no longer be financed through low teacher pay. The lack of adequate financial and professional supports to these early educators compromises the consistency and quality of care children receive. In acknowledgement of these facts, it is clear that Senator Warren and Representative Haaland’s Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act would vastly improve our current system to the benefit of all.