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’s hard to believe we’re more than 92% through 2023! Last year, I wrote a column on five trends to look for in 2023 (which I think in retrospect were mostly apt, though the answer to ‘is bipartisanship possible’ seems to have been ‘outlook not so good’), and thought it would be worthwhile to do it again as the calendar gets ready to turn. So, in no particular order:
1. How bad will the post-stabilization pain be?
Now that pandemic stabilization funds have expired, we’re into uncharted territory when it comes to a structurally unsound child care sector. While program closures are a threat (and already happening), the first gate most programs will pass through is raising their fees. The first post-stabilization survey we have, although a small ‘n,’ shows close to a third of parents enrolled in programs that used to but no longer receive grants have experienced a fee increase. A large chunk of programs is also being forced to cut back on staff compensation, a risky proposition for a sector still down nearly 40,000 educators from pre-pandemic levels.
The other factor at play is state-by-state variation. Some states, like Massachusetts, are spending hundreds of millions of state dollars to keep the stabilization grants going. Washington, D.C. (and its population of 700,000 residents) is spending $75 million a year on the most impressive early educator compensation program in the nation – and is already seeing staffing increases. Others, like North Carolina, have let the funds drop out without meaningful replacement. So what child care looks like in 2024 is unlikely to be one national story so much as a series of state stories.
Speaking of stories, it would be enormously helpful to have a dedicated effort to collect quantitative and qualitative data about how the sector is doing. For instance, the National Women’s Law Center recently launched a map tool tracking state and local media reports. Philanthropies may want to fund a suite of data collection efforts to be able to paint a clear and accurate picture about how much pain the sector is experiencing, and how that differs by different levels of state investment.
2. The rising temptation of employer-sponsored child care
In 2023, both Democrats and Republicans amped up a trend of turning their eyes toward employers as a salve for the child care problem. Actions ranged from new state tax credits to grant pools like Indiana’s $25 million Employer Sponsored Child Care Fund to the Biden administration’s requirement that semiconductor manufacturers detail a plan for child care assistance as part of getting CHIPS Act funding.
I have argued at some length that this is a dangerous road to go down: the concept is plagued by issues like opportunity cost (vs. spending money and political capital on a publicly-funded system) and job lock, to say nothing of how elevating employers reinforces child care as a mere work support, thus leaning into the minimum viable child care fallacy. Employer benefits also further the growing market share of investor-backed for-profit child care chains, as those are the providers employers most frequently tap. Instead, I assert employers should pay into a universal system via taxes. (I hope to publish a report going into much more detail on the topic come January.) Others disagree and think employer-sponsored care is a positive and warranted offering, while still others argue that it’s a decent incremental step that can be an on-ramp for employers to get involved in the fight for public funding.
That’s fine! Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about this in good faith. Wherever one falls on the question, it’s an important debate and one that should be brought to the forefront, rather than a road uncritically followed. As federal action remains stalled and many states gear up to consider further incentivizing employer-sponsored benefits in their 2024 legislative sessions, the proper role of employers should be hashed out sooner rather than later.
3. Climate change alarm turning toward child care adaptation
Last year, I wrote that progress was being made in advancing the nascent intersection of early childhood and climate change. 2023 massively accelerated that process. In October, the U.S. Early Years Climate Action Task Force (note: I helped coordinate the Task Force as part of my role at the think tank Capita) released “Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities, and a Stronger Nation: The U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan.” The plan has since been presented to Congressional staff, executive branch staff, mayors, community groups, early childhood professionals and others. As I write, two of my Capita colleagues are in Dubai at the Conference of the Parties (COP) co-leading multiple sessions on the topic. At the same time, 2023’s chaotic climate change-enhanced weather—from wildfires impacting the U.S. East Coast and Maui to massive flooding events in New York and Vermont to record-breaking heatwaves all over the country—reinforced that climate change is now the context in which early childhood systems exist.
The question now is how to make good on actionable recommendations. That will involve a lot of local and state work to consider what is needed in particular contexts, as well as drawing on funding sources such as the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and Community Development Financial Institutions like the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF). For instance, as LIIF’s Vice President of Early Care & Education Angie Garling recently wrote: “LIIF is now partnering with the State of California to disburse up to $350 million in facilities grants to providers in every county in the state. Not surprisingly, around 40% of applicants requested upgrades related to climate mitigation. Think solar panels, HVAC systems, shade structures and even misting systems to keep children cool.”
Indeed, adapting and upgrading child care facilities, in particular, stands out as a practical and compelling place to start turning alarm into action. 2024 has the chance to be a key inflection point for young children and the climate.
4. Family, friends & neighbor caregivers start getting their due
One of the more welcome recent early learning trends is a growing acknowledgment from advocates and policymakers that an effective child care system cannot exclude family, friends & neighbor (FFNs) caregivers. For instance, Colorado has made unprecedented investments in FFNs, using American Rescue Plan Act money to hire an FFN point person within the state department of early childhood, launching an FFN advisory council and working with philanthropy to pilot a direct payment initiative. In more and more conversations I’m a part of, FFNs are coming up, and it’s a noticeable shift from even five years ago.
For quite a while, there has been a tension between FFNs and more ‘formal’ types of licensed child care, owing, I speculate, to some consternation that embracing FFNs somehow made the field feel less ‘professional.’ But that tension seems to be resolving itself in favor of a pluralistic and inclusive approach that acknowledges different settings may require different funding mechanisms and training requirements, but quality child care can be delivered in any setting. (That also gestures toward a needed conversation around stay-at-home parents). One way this resolution shows up is increasing calls to stop using the phrase ‘child care desert,’ or at least to modify it as ‘licensed child care desert,’ since children in those areas are still being cared for by someone: most frequently an FFN caregiver or a parent.
This is a welcome shift, given how crucial FFNs are for many families; they collectively provide regular care for around one-third of the young children in the country, and are especially important for rural and immigrant populations. The question now is seeing if smaller pilots can be scaled, if FFN-focused work can spread across the country, and if FFNs can be folded more fully and fairly into federal child care policy proposals.
5. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s an election coming up
Despite my best efforts, I’m sad to say the 2024 election cycle isn’t likely to be dominated by child care. Undoubtedly, issues around the economy writ large, abortion and the candidates themselves will lead the marquee. That said, child care is poised to be a bigger topic of conversation this year than any election cycle in memory. The child care pain point continues to broaden across ideological lines. Fox News is running segments. Unions have put together a $50 million campaign around care. New advocacy groups, like Chamber of Mothers (full disclosure: I’m on their board) are growing rapidly and already have access to hundreds of thousands of fed-up parents.
The question is whether child care gets drowned out or whether there can be enough of a show of force—both monetarily and from parents making it clear that their vote hinges on care issue—to get candidates’ attention. The way these efforts are messaged also presents a hinge point of casting child care purely in terms of its economic benefits or making the broader point that child care undergirds family freedom and flourishing.
With the odds of an ongoing divided federal government quite high, state and local elections will also be of paramount importance, and not merely because of child care-focused ballot measures. Just look at Minnesota. After Minnesota Democrats took full control of the state government in 2022 for the first time in a decade—and by just a one-vote majority in the state senate—they went on to pass $750 million(!) in new early care & education spending. Similarly, Vermont’s powerful Act 76 would not be law if there wasn’t a supermajority capable of overriding Gov. Phil Scott’s veto.
To that point, the other political trend to watch is whether states will follow the lead of Vermont, Washington State, Oregon’s Multnomah County (Portland), New Mexico and Washington, D.C. in identifying large, dedicated funding streams for child care. These jurisdictions have tapped sources ranging from payroll taxes to capital gains taxes to ‘millionaires’ taxes,’ and there are surely other as-yet uncovered options as well. If states are going to have to carry the child care water for a while longer, the political makeup of state government matters an awful lot.
I don’t think it’s a risky prediction to suggest that for better or worse, the 2024 elections will indelibly shape the middle part of the decade for early learning.
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.