Elliot’s Provocations: Bring on School-Aged Care - Early Learning Nation

Elliot’s Provocations: Bring on School-Aged Care

Can We Create a Seamless Melding of Early Child Care and School-Aged Care?

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.

Child care needs don’t end when children walk into the first day of kindergarten. The school year and school day are still laughably mismatched with most Americans’ working schedules (not, contrary to popular belief, because of the agrarian calendar!). Yet the child care conversation is dominated by the early years. Linking early child care and school-aged care is a good idea both on the merits and the politics. I’m hardly the first one to point this out, but I want to highlight the opportunity here as we head into summer break and the acute headache it causes for many families.

Philosophically, it makes little sense to overly segment the early years when talking about care. Certainly child care needs are most intense and expensive prior to school entry; those seven hours a day for 180 days a year aren’t nothing! But families do not experience care needs in a vacuum: a household that has found an affordable slot for their toddler but can’t afford care for their second grader is still under stress. The primary child care subsidy law, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, serves children up to age 13 for this reason. Most people wouldn’t know it, but 1 in 3 children who benefit from child care assistance are school-aged.

Politically, bringing in parents of elementary schoolers massively expands the child care constituency. While there are around 20 million children under the age of five, not all of them belong to families that utilize external child care. (Stay-at-home parents should be brought into the coalition as well, but that’s a story for another column!) More than three million are infants, and parents of babies are not famously known for having a lot of discretionary time or energy. On the other hand, there are over 35 million elementary school students in the U.S. with less bleary-eyed parents. [1] 10 million currently attend an after-school program, another 20 million would if one was available and affordable, and the vast majority have summer care needs.

Why hasn’t there been more of a seamless melding of early child care and school-aged care? To find out, I asked Joan Lombardi, a child care luminary who has held top child care roles in the federal government and has been fighting for decades toward a better system. Lombardi told me over email that “I don’t think there is any one point in history that marked a clear separation, but it did seem slowly over time these issues diverged somewhat.”

Lombardi pointed to a few different influences. One was the emergence of different policy mechanisms and funding streams. For instance, while Head Start, Early Head Start and public pre-K were expanding with their age-specific focuses, in 1994 Congress reauthorized the nation’s major education law and funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers — centers that encompassed afterschool programming. Around the same time, some large philanthropies started to direct their funding to more discrete age bands. The direction of the money pushed advocates along like a strong current: the Afterschool Alliance was founded in 2000 and the Birth-to-Five Policy Alliance (now the Alliance for Early Success) followed in 2005.

Looking back, then, the split-up of early years and school-aged child care does not read as a story of rancor, but as a gradual and unintentional separation. I’ve never heard anyone make a vocal case in favor of keeping the two at arm’s length.

So, what could a tighter linkage look like? It would start with a unified policy proposal. Both major federal child care proposals—Sen. Patty Murray’s Child Care for Working Families Act and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Child Care for Every Community Act—are primarily focused on young children and are essentially silent on school-aged care. [2] Extending care benefits up through elementary school does add to the price tag (California’s very successful Expanded Learning Opportunities Program costs $4 billion) but the investment is well worth it both in terms of political will and improvements in human flourishing. [3]

Once a comprehensive policy is in place, it will smooth the path for coalition-building and parent activation. Consider summer child care again. Currently, the group sitting most squarely at the intersection of ‘needs heavy usage of summer camps’ and ‘it is painful to find and afford summer camps’ are two-earner middle class households, especially (sigh) mothers. This is an electorally potent group that too often experiences what writer Rebecca Ackermann once termed “stressed mom summer.” A child care plan that pumped money into summer care options to make them much more affordable and widely available could be an advocacy entry point for parents who may no longer have a personal reason to agitate for better toddler care.

Philanthropy, too, has a role to play here. Even if a funder is only interested in the early years, promoting a policy and advocacy agenda that encompasses school-aged care is actually a better bet than putting up a wall at Kindergarten, and the same goes for funders targeting what are known in the sector as ‘out of school time programs.’ Recapturing the cross-age solidarity that existed in the beginning of the 1970s would be a boon for every age.

The continental drift between early care and school-aged care may have been unplanned, but putting the two back together will require serious intentionality. We cannot allow the technocratic cleaving of age groups and funding streams to impoverish our understanding that care is care and the experience of parents and children is a totality of the pulls and pushes in their lives. [4] Thankfully, integrating the issue across the age spectrum is a win-win. All the connection requires now is some attention, love and, dare I say, care.

[1] Of course, there are also a fair percentage of these families that overlap because they have both an elementary schooler and a young child.

[2] Both bills would leave intact the current (limited) Child Care and Development Block Grant support of school-aged care.

[3] There are also, of course, real differences between early care and school-aged care that would need to be reflected in policy. Many outdoor summer camps and after-school clubs are not currently set up to be part of the child care subsidy system, and the current system may well not be designed in a way to effectively include them. That should be a serious conversation, which is in a way my whole point.

[4] This goes for elder care and care for family members with chronic medical conditions or disabilities, by the way, and is a care-lifespan idea promoted most notably by Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations. That, too, is the subject for another column!

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.

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