Blog: The Educated Reporter

What’s the Price of High-Quality Child Care for All Kids?

Taryn Morrissey recalls that when she had her first child several years ago, “I knew how expensive it was going to be.” Morrissey is, after all, an associate professor at American University who studies child-care policy. Then she started shopping for child-care centers and got hit with sticker shock.

“It’s REALLY expensive,” she said with a laugh.

Morrissey discussed strategies for making high-quality, affordable child care available for all families at a panel at the 2017 Education Writers Association National Seminar in Washington, D.C. Joining Morrissey were Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Helen Blank, the director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center.

As much as parents bemoan the cost of child care, Blank said, “the truth is child care should cost more. Because the average child-care worker makes $11 an hour,” she said. Cutting costs elsewhere in child care doesn’t work, Blank said, “because about 80 percent of the costs are staff.”

Federal Aid Seen as Key

So how can you take something that’s unaffordable for many parents and raise the quality — and expense — without pricing families out of child care altogether? All three panelists agreed that federal funding is key, but they differed on the form that aid should take.

Whitehurst supports a voucher program and education savings accounts in which low-income parents can bank or spend an allotment of federal dollars toward child care, whether that is center-based care or a stay-at-home parent.

“Since Republicans are in charge, and I served in a Republican administration for eight years, I’ve been trying to think of strategies that could generate support from the right,” Whitehurst said. “And I think those strategies will be connected to vouchers.”

Blank said that most existing preschool programs fall short. While Head Start provides an important service, she said, it doesn’t meet working parents’ needs because it’s not full-day. Neither are most other subsidized pre-K programs.

Blank said what does serve working parents is the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant subsidies, but only one out of six children eligible for assistance receives it. She proposes lowering the bar for enrollment to families who make 170 percent of the state median income level — double the present cutoff. Blank would also raise the standard care and make sure child care teachers made a living wage.

“Yes, that would be very expensive,” she said. “In the end, I think it would pay off for kids.”

Morrissey discussed a plan outlined in a book she recently co-authored, “Cradle to Kindergarten.” That plan would “vastly expand” the Child Care and Development Block Grant as well as add contracted child-care slots for providers to insure that they can keep their bills paid without full enrollment. Morrissey’s plan would also increase the maximum benefit from the Child and Dependent Care tax credit from $600 to $3,000, and make it refundable to increase family choice.

Whitehurst said he sees some policies championing putting young kids in day care as the ideal strategy.

“The implicit assumption is that what’s ideal for kids is high-quality, center-based care,” he said. “I don’t think the evidence supports that.”

Instead, Whitehurst said, studies show that children benefit from staying home with a parent for at least the first couple of years.

Besides the child-development concerns, Whitehurst said, “politically, the proposal for a system that provides strong incentives for parents to put their kids in center-based care — whereas the option might have been family care — is a nonstarter.”

Blank of the National Women’s Law Center acknowledged that center-based care isn’t the answer for every child. She said quality can be found in home-based child care, too. “But you have to be cautious because some of it is legal and regulated, and some of it is willfully avoiding regulation,” she said.

‘This Isn’t Just a Poverty Problem’

Blank said even for licensed centers, many states lack thorough regulations for home-based care, or the resources to adequately inspect those facilities.

“It’s really important to note that this isn’t just a poverty problem,” Morrissey said. She points to a growing achievement gap not only between children from low- and high-income families, but even between kids from middle- and high-income backgrounds.

“Middle-income families are squeezed, too,” Morrissey said, while high-income families are investing heavily in high-quality child care centers and preschools.

The three panelists fully agreed on one thing: The Trump administration’s proposed tax deduction for child care would not serve families who need the most help. Only higher-earners with a tax liability and those who itemize their income taxes would benefit much, not low- and middle-income parents who, like Morrissey, can’t believe how much it costs to put their kids in care while they go to work.