Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.
We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.
It feels bizarre to be writing these words, but the U.S. stands on the verge of a real early learning system. President Biden’s framework for the “Build Back Better” bill retains $400 billion over six years for child care and universal pre-K, investments that will allow parent fees to drop, supply to increase and compensation to spike – – the last of which is deeply tied to quality. Moderate and progressive Democrats are still hashing out their overall differences with the package, but assuming they can get the bill passed, we’ll finally be on our way.
The question then turns to: how do we get from here to there?
Implementation is always tricky, all the more so when you’re trying to largely build a system from scratch (many child care advocates rightly say we have a child care ‘non-system’ at the moment). Happily, a recently released resource from Bank Street College of Education offers up some guideposts. Earlier this year, Bank Street convened a group of early childhood thought leaders—of which I was honored to be a part—to consider the question of what it looks like to establish child care as a public good. The resulting brief of the same name puts forth the group’s recommendations.
The principles offered are:
- Update and Expand the Value Proposition
- Invest In and Plan for the Long-Term
- Design for Anti-Racism
- Commit to Quality
- Partner with Educators, Families and Communities Throughout Policy Design and Implementation
The last three points are particularly relevant for implementation. The brief notes that “we must name the system design components that perpetuate inequities, inefficacies, fragmentation and unintended consequences. At the same time, we can build from aspects of our system that have centered around anti-racism and equity … Designing an anti-racist ECE system requires a shared commitment to a concept of quality that includes equitable experiences of quality among the children and families it serves, allowing space for the definition of ‘quality’ to be expansive enough to include a continuum of preferences, priorities and values that represent the cultural diversity and needs of all learners.”
There are many racist (and classist) components to the current system: for instance, the process of applying for and acquiring child care subsidy—assistance disproportionately used by people of color—can feel designed to be a discouraging and brutal Kafka-esque journey. This is no accident; as historian Sonya Michel has pointed out, the 1996 welfare reform bill turned child care “into a lever for punitive policy toward poor and low-income mothers.”
Similarly, suspensions and expulsions of young children occur far more often among children of color than their white peers. (ELN also recently wrote about pre-K expulsions.) One thing I learned when reporting on the excellent design of Multnomah County (OR)’s universal pre-K initiative was how vital it is to have diverse parent voices involved to avoid the very unintended consequences the brief warns about. For instance, it was the parents’ involvement in setting the campaign’s policy priorities that ensured the initiative bans preschool suspensions and expulsions.
Quality is another area in need of a reckoning. There may be a temptation among policymakers to reach for public school analogues when it comes to quality metrics. While there are lots of times when schools make good comparisons for early learning settings, this isn’t one of them. Quality for younger children often looks and feels different (frankly, schools could take a few lessons from ECE!). Moreover, the traditional quality rating systems in early childhood have come under quite a bit of fire in recent years for privileging a particular perspective of care.
We can do better. In a blog post, Bank Street’s Brandy Jones Lawrence and Emily Sharrock laid out a vision for how considering child care as a public good can lead to better quality, writing that “America has made the decision not to invest in quality care. But it does not have to be this way, and changing our approach does not have to be incremental.”
It is unbelievably exciting to be talking about the potential implementation of a real child care system instead of arguing about whether one should exist. The implementation phase is not, however, going to be easy. Starting with ‘first principles’ like those laid out in the brief will smooth what could be a rocky road — and no matter the state of the path, we are finally, finally, finally headed in the correct direction.
Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including on The PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Elliot also writes a free semi-monthly newsletter, The Parents Aren't Alright.