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.
If you’ve been following my work at all, you know I bristle at many “incremental” solutions to child care challenges. Such offerings are often well-intentioned distractions at best, and at worst actively take the sector in the wrong direction. One recent policy innovation, however, is both promising and easily replicable: giving child care educators free or deeply discounted care for their own children.
As with many innovations, this is less about a brand new idea and more about scaling. Some child care programs have for decades offered discounts to employees as an incentive. What’s happened in the past year is that two institutions — the state of Kentucky and the United States military — have taken the idea universal within their jurisdictions.
In Kentucky, as NPR recently reported, “The state made all child care employees eligible for free child care, regardless of household income.” This was accomplished by a policy change making child care educators who work more than 20 hours a week at a licensed program categorically eligible for the state’s child care assistance program (which is otherwise means-tested and has a sliding scale of parent co-pays). Similarly, the Secretary of Defense has instructed all service branches to offer at least a 50% discount to child care educators. The Air Force went further, putting into place a “first child free” policy for child care staff.
The effects have been impressive. While there are always multiple influences in a labor market, these incentives appear to be helping recruit and retain staff at a time when child care employment nationwide has stagnated at around 40,000 educators below pre-pandemic levels. On a recent panel, Alex Wagner, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said that “what I’m really proud of is from June of 2022 to now August of 2023, [Air Force Child Development Center] staffing has gone from 65% to … 80%.” One Kentucky child care center owner told NPR, “That is a beautiful incentive. Any of my teachers who have children — they can work for me, and their children are paid for by the state.”
But Elliot, you may be saying, aren’t you a crusader against employer-sponsored child care benefits, and isn’t this technically an employer-sponsored child care benefit? Sort of. This is a unique and narrow use case. Directly improving staffing levels of child care programs has widespread benefits. It allows programs to keep more of their classrooms open and serve more families. A useful new brief by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley concludes that “For each early educator who benefits from a child care subsidy in Kentucky, as many as 13 other children under age six benefit from stable enrollment in her classroom or group.”
Stable educators are also a critical element of quality; young children don’t generally do well with caregiver churn. And, importantly, this innovation relies on public dollars rather than the largesse of corporations.
Now, here come the caveats. This is not, as the NPR headline suggests, a way to “fix” child care staffing shortages. The only sustainable fix is to have enough public money in the system to offer educators family-sustaining salaries and comprehensive benefits. Subsidizing educators’ own child care doesn’t put new money into the system. Some providers may actually take a modest financial hit: with few exceptions, states reimburse providers for each child enrolled in the subsidy program at a significantly lower rate than the true cost of care, or even what providers can charge ‘full-pay’ parents.
Moreover, the benefit is limited in scope: this may be obvious, but it only helps educators who have young kids. As of 2018, about one-quarter of child care employees nationwide had a child under the age of five. That’s a substantial minority — using most recent data, the CSCCE brief suggests more than 200,000 child care employees could potentially benefit — but still a minority.
There’s also a temporal question. An educator who takes a lower-paying job with a child care program as opposed to a higher-paying one with Amazon or Target because their toddler gets free care–effectively a $10,000 raise plus the ability to be near their child–will face a crossroads within a few years. What happens when the child reaches school-age (or eligibility for free pre-K, if their state or locality offers it) and the financial calculus changes?
So long as the incentive is kept within its proper context and not seen as a replacement for permanent public funding, however, it is well worth pursuing. It can legitimately put a finger in the dam of staffing challenges. It is good for kids, and good for the health of child care programs who will experience less turnover. Child care educators should never have to face the painful irony of leaving their jobs upon having a child…due only to the lack of affordable child care.
I was discussing this topic with a colleague, and she wisely pointed out that unlike how pushing corporate child care benefits cements child care as an individualized and private service, making child care free for staff actually makes a positive philosophical contribution. It is a tacit acknowledgment — coming from ruby-red Kentucky and the U.S. military, no less! — that for at least for a certain segment of the population, society has a compelling interest in providing free child care regardless of an individual’s income. The more precedents that normalize the idea of a strong, choice-based child care system with public backing benefitting all of society, the better off we’ll be. I hope other states take note.
I often say that people too often look for some outside-the-box solution to child care, when the real problem is we’ve never been willing to build a box at all. Offering free child care for child care educators isn’t a solution, but perhaps it’s a solid strip of duct tape.
 For what it’s worth, I’d also argue that the armed services are a unique employer; the Department of Defense also operates 180 publicly-funded K-12 schools!
 That financial hit may be offset by having enough staff to keep classrooms open — it’s a much bigger problem to be majorly below capacity because of staffing shortages! — but the point is that this incentive does not make programs more financially sustainable in the broader sense.
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.