Elliot’s Provocations: The Child Care Stakes for 2024’s Election Just Went Up - Early Learning Nation

Elliot’s Provocations: The Child Care Stakes for 2024’s Election Just Went Up

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.

I have been more bullish than many about the prospects for bipartisan child care reform. My case rested on facts like how child care is such a pain point in red states and rural areas, increasing attention from conservative media, and a significant (if unfunded) child care bill introduced by Senate Republicans with enough co-sponsors to break a filibuster. Two pieces of news over the past few weeks are causing me to update my prediction and become far more concerned about the coming years.

The first is commentary by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. Responding to concerns about South Dakota’s child care struggles—which have recently been exacerbated by the closure of several programs serving hundreds of families—Noem dismissed the idea that government has much of a role to play at all. “The one thing people have asked for that I’m not willing to do is directly subsidize child care for families. I just don’t think it’s the government’s job to pay or to raise people’s children for them,” Noem said, adding vaguely that, “we’ll do all we can to make sure there are resources in their community for [families] to utilize.”

Normally, it wouldn’t be so consequential that a conservative small-state governor is opposed to the fundamental idea that child care has societal benefits and is thus deserving of societal support (and that helping parents afford the care of their choice is comically far from the government raising parents’ children for them). In this case, however, the conservative small-state governor is one of the frontrunners, if not the frontrunner, to be Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick should he—as seems overwhelmingly likely—secure the Republican nomination. Knowingly or not, Noem is echoing another highly Trump-aligned Republican, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. If this line of thinking becomes Trumpian orthodoxy, that’s a big problem.

Second, unless you’re a political junkie, the phrase “Project 2025” probably doesn’t mean much to you, but it should. As PBS Newshour reported:

Led by the long-established Heritage Foundation think tank and fueled by former Trump administration officials, the far-reaching effort is essentially a government-in-waiting for the former president’s second term—or any candidate who aligns with their ideals and can defeat President Joe Biden in 2024.

With a nearly 1,000-page “Project 2025” handbook and an “army” of Americans, the idea is to have the civic infrastructure in place on Day One to commandeer, reshape and do away with what Republicans deride as the “deep state” bureaucracy…

That handbook has now been made public, and the early learning bullets are a rough read. Perhaps most alarmingly, the authors recommend the literal end of Head Start: “this program should be eliminated along with the entire [Office of Head Start].” No replacement program is suggested, so following through on that idea would result in nearly one million lower-income children and their parents losing access to free child care and wraparound family support.

When it comes to child care more broadly, Project 2025 wants the government to “prioritize funding for home-based child care, not universal day care … Instead of providing universal day care, funding should go to parents either to offset the cost of staying home with a child or to pay for familial, in-home child care.” I have argued many times that there should be financial support for family, friends, and neighbor (FFN) caregivers as well as stay-at-home parents, but such a proposal ignores the millions of parents who want and need external child care. Doing what the authors recommend would, ironically, restrict parental choices. (Since they can’t completely kill external child care, the authors do suggest “Congress should incentivize on-site child care,” which it already does and which has its own host of problems.)

Put together, Noem’s comments and Project 2025’s recommendations show a disturbing hostility toward child care as a sector. While there are reasonable disagreements over how to best structure child care policy, the extent of public funding required and who should benefit, those conversations generally start with a few common principles. Such principles include the understanding that a substantial percentage of working parents will always require external child care, the current system is not working and the government has a role to play. If that foundation for discussion and compromise is becoming shaky, we may be in for dark days.

On the Democratic side, it doesn’t look like much is poised to shift from the Biden Administration’s first-term approach. An Associated Press article noted that, “Biden will want to bring back the ideas that were left on the cutting room floor. That includes … offering universal preschool and limiting the cost of child care to 7% of income for most families.”

The dominant Democratic child care plan continues to be the Child Care For Working Families Act, which enjoys co-sponsorship by 43 Democratic senators. While the newest version of the Act has some welcome updates (such as combining subsidy vouchers for families with operational grants for providers akin to the highly successful pandemic-era stabilization grants), it still relies on technocratic activity tests and sliding fee scales, and is still mostly silent on school-aged child care, FFN caregivers and stay-at-home parents.

The early months of 2024 would be a good time to try and guide the child care conversation back to a middle ground. That might look like good-faith conservative thinkers and advocates, such as those involved in the Convergence Collaborative on Supports for Working Families* pushing back on the extreme positions being staked out by Noem and Project 2025. These conservatives might remind the far right that Trump actually held a White House Summit on Child Care and Paid Leave in 2019, and could steer conservatives toward a reasonable alternative like Patrick T. Brown’s vision for child care pluralism. At the same time, progressives need to reckon with whether the Child Care For Working Families approach is still the right one, and push their party to finally come up with proposals that go far beyond licensed child care programs.

All of the above will be easier if child care is positioned not as an isolated issue, but as one service among many needed within a framework of family flourishing and freedom. There is no reason for child care needs to fall prey to rank partisanship. For instance, even as the warning signs flash red for child care, true bipartisan momentum is growing for paid leave legislation. I won’t pretend the danger to child care is coming equally from both parties, but each has work to do to recalibrate in advance of the election — and if they fail, it is ultimately America’s children and families who stand to suffer.

*Full disclosure: Capita, the think tank at which I am a senior fellow, participated in the Collaborative.

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 ofCrawling 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 onThe 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, andThe 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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