You couldn’t tell from looking at its legislative calendar, but this week the Senate will debate one of the most important policy questions of the 114th Congress and of the 2016 presidential campaign: How can we ensure that all families in America have access to affordable, high-quality child care?
Officially, the Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill that reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the legislation governing federal K–12 education policy. But Senate Democrats have other plans.
The Washington Post explains: “Universal child care is becoming a central pillar of the liberal agenda,” and Democrats plan to use the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization debate in the Senate this week as an opportunity to showcase their political strategy to achieve it.
This strategy includes rewriting the ESEA legislation to allow federal funds designated under Title I for elementary and secondary schools to be redirected toward preschool programs, and pushing an amendment that would establish $30 billion of new federal spending on pre-K programs over five years, on top of the $20 billion we already spend every year on 45 separate early-childhood education and care programs.
Of course, child care is, and has always been, a conservative priority. That’s why we promote public policies that strengthen and support parents, families, neighborhoods, civic and charitable institutions, religious organizations, and free markets as well as a targeted, responsive, locally administered safety net to help the neediest in our communities.
But that’s not what progressives mean when they say “universal child care.” For the Left, “universal” means “run by bureaucrats and funded by taxpayers.” And “child care” is a catch-all category that includes day-care arrangements for infants and toddlers, and preschool (also called pre-kindergarten, or pre-K) programs that are traditionally reserved for four-year-olds.
In other words, what is billed as the next great ambition of the Democratic party is, at its core, little more than a federal mandate to lower the eligibility age for the public education system from five to zero.
This would be a disaster not only for American children and families, but for our 21st-century economy, which is increasingly driven by human capital.
We know that a good education starting at a young age is an essential ingredient for upward economic mobility later in life. A mountain of recent social-science research proves what experience and intuition have been teaching mankind for millennia: that children’s first few years of life are critical in their cognitive and emotional development.
Yet we also know that too many of America’s over-bureaucratized public schools, especially those in low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods where families have no education options, fail to prepare their students to succeed.
Nowhere has the top-down, centrally planned model of public education failed more emphatically than in our nation’s public pre-K programs. The epitome of federal preschool programs is Head Start, which has consistently failed to improve the lives and educational achievements of the children it ostensibly serves. According to a 2012 study by President Obama’s own Department of Health and Human Services, whatever benefits children gain from the program disappear by the time they reach the third grade.
But because bureaucracies invariably measure success in terms of inputs, instead of outcomes, Head Start and its $8 billion annual budget is the model for Democrats as they seek to expand federal control over child-care programs in communities all across the country.
This simply isn’t good enough. America’s children and families deserve better. And we already have the means to do better. The private sector and state and local governments are already providing child care and preschool services to most families.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 90 percent of working moms already have a regular child-care arrangement for their kids under five years old. There is no reason to believe anonymous federal bureaucrats will improve on what may be the most personalized service in the entire economy.
The only way to have truly high-quality, affordable child care in America is to further empower parents, educators, and local policymakers to customize their early-childhood programs to meet the unique needs of their communities and serve the low-income families that federal programs are leaving behind.
Tax and regulatory reform that allowed more day-care providers to open and serve more families would help. Tax relief for working families, including an increase in the child tax credit to offset the parent tax penalty, would too.
Congress could start block-granting the existing Head Start budget to the states. This would allow those closest to the children and families being served to design their own programs — rather than spending all their time complying with onerous, one-size-fits-all federal mandates — and designate eligible public and private preschools to receive grants.
At the state and local level, even more innovative solutions are already working. In my home state of Utah, for instance, United Way of Salt Lake has partnered with two private financial institutions, Goldman Sachs and J. B. Pritzker, to provide first-rate early-education programs to thousands of Utah children. And they’ve done it without any interference from the federal government.
They call it a “pay for success” loan. With no upfront cost or risk to the taxpayers, private capital is invested in the Utah High Quality Preschool Program, which is implemented and overseen by United Way. If, as expected, the preschool program results in increased school readiness and improved academic performance, the state of Utah repays the private investors using the public funds it would have spent on remedial services for the children between kindergarten and the twelfth grade had they not participated in the program.
Washington policymakers should look at Utah’s pay-for-success initiatives — and other local success stories like them — not simply as potential federal programs, but as a testament to the power of community-level problem-solving. It is precisely this kind of innovation and experimentation that would be crowded out if Washington were allowed to set up a federal monopoly in the pre-K and child-care sphere.
After making sure the ESEA reauthorization isn’t used to expand Washington’s control over early-childhood education and care, Congress must advance reforms that empower parents — with flexibility and choice — to do what’s in the best interest of their children.