How Not to Fix Early Childhood Education

The left wants universal preschool and childcare. Programs that serve the underprivileged work better—and add less to our debt burden.

The bipartisan agreement reached on infrastructure leaves out childcare. But the left is likely to continue to push for universal preschool and childcare as an extension of our public K-12 system.

“We have two very different systems in our country for teaching our little ones,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at a hearing last week on childcare (in which I was a witness).  “Do these two separate systems make sense given what the evidence says about the benefits of high quality early care?”

Turns out, yes, they do.

Progressives pride themselves on believing in science. But the gains they often cite from early childhood programs are from those targeted toward disadvantaged families, not universal programs. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has found 7 percent to 13 percent annual returns from the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project that focused on low-income black children and their families in the 1960s and 1970s, based on improved educational, professional, social and health outcomes.

Moreover, the children of those who attended such programs also have exhibited better economic outcomes. This suggests that targeted investments in early childhood care could be a powerful tool for increasing intergenerational opportunity. Harvard economist Raj Chetty has done research on upward mobility by neighborhood, which could be used to target the locations for early childhood investment.

But the benefits of universal care programs are decidedly mixed and range from positive, to fading, to negative. A 2021 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research on the effects of universal preschool in Boston found improvements in college-going, college preparation, and standardized test scores, whereas Quebec’s universal childcare program has been associated with negative outcomes for children on a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, including increased aggression, physical illness, and lower quality parental relationships. More research is needed before this becomes every American child’s experience.

Importantly, the strong case for increased care investments for disadvantaged families doesn’t mean that the government should be the sole provider. Just look at what’s happening to our public K-12 schools: Only four in five kids graduate on time and our academic performance has fallen behind that of Russia’s. Research has shown that students from low-quality neighborhood schools benefit greatly from choice and that those who win lotteries to attend a public school of their choice (often outside of where they are zoned) are more likely to graduate from high school, attend a four-year college, and earn a bachelor’s degree.

We should be giving parents more choice—not less—in early childhood education too. The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit included in the American Rescue Plan is in essence a school choice program wherein parents can use center-based care, in-home care, a church program, language class, or more on whatever schedule works for them. 

An expanded CDCTC would allow for a proliferation of different types of programs in response to what parents want, not what Washington wants, and it would negate the need for a universal, public program. A refundable credit would benefit low-income families, for whom childcare costs are a barrier to work and high-quality care outside the home is financially prohibitive. 

The plight of childcare providers, too, has come to the attention of the left. President Biden has called for a $15 minimum wage for a workforce that’s mostly made up of women of color earning relatively low wages. But the consumers of childcare are also frequently low-wage parents of color who can barely afford (or access) childcare as it is. According to the Center for American Progress, half of Hispanics live in childcare deserts and the average black family’s cost of center-based childcare for two children is more than half their income. In-home care providers, which often are more convenient and cost less, are dwindling.

We need to expand the supply of providers, not restrict them with higher costs and more mandates. Higher wages should be paired with increased skills and opportunities for advancement. Expanding apprenticeship programs for early childhood providers is a better approach. Multiple states—including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado—have begun to implement registered apprenticeship programs for early childhood educators. Policies that encourage economic growth would add to the demand for workers—boosting wages and opportunities for advancement—as would an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which importantly shares none of the downside of a higher minimum wage. 

Folks on the left are fond of saying that these programs would pay for themselves. But there’s no free lunch, especially when the federal debt held by the public already exceeds the size of our entire GDP. While highly targeted programs may produce such returns, in the words of Heckman in the Wall Street Journal nearly 20 years ago, there is “zero reason to believe this is the case with universal programs.”

Any new spending should come with the review of existing childcare subsidies and government programs, and there are a lot. Congress also needs to take a more comprehensive look at our spending, which is outpacing revenues by more than $1 trillion every year, and consider shifting priorities. In the next decade, federal spending for Americans over the age of 65 will make up half of all spending, while spending on children will drop to 7 percent. No amount of preschool education will overcome the historic debt burden facing the next generation.

Democrats are right to focus on early childhood care. It is a time of incredible brain growth development, an area with greater economic returns than investing later in life, and where gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children take root. Economic considerations aside, there’s no higher moral imperative than providing our children with the highest levels of care.  Yet in the childcare hearing last week (in which I testified), not a single Republican senator came. This is a loss.

Infrastructure may well pass on a bipartisan basis; a children's care agenda could (and should) too. But this will take more creativity and innovation than both sides have put in to date. American families would benefit from targeted care investments in disadvantaged communities, childcare tax credits for low-income and middle-income families to reduce barriers to work and improve quality of care, paid parental leave to protect space between parents and infants, apprenticeships to increase the supply and advancement of care providers, and economic growth and wage support to ensure more parents can spend time at home.

Creating more choices for families is better than a government universal care system that fails to deliver results.

Abby M. McCloskey is founder and principal of McCloskey Policy LLC (www.mccloskeypolicy.com). She has advised numerous Republican and independent presidential campaigns.