Federal Policy Should Improve Access to High-Quality Child Care
With four out of 10 children under age 6 living in low-income households (under 200 percent of poverty) and facing multiple risk factors that affect their chances for success in later life, investments in young children are increasingly important. Decades of research confirm that high-quality child care and early education can improve outcomes for children, particularly low-income children. High-quality early learning experiences, which support the full range of children's development, promote child well-being and help build solid foundations for future learning and success. Parents also benefit when they have access to reliable, affordable, quality child care that allows them to work to support their families. Research shows that investments in child care assistance make a significant difference in the economic health and security of families by helping families move out of poverty, sustain their participation in the workforce, and limit instability in care arrangements that can impact work.
Few children have access to the help they need: in the last decade, only one in seven federally eligible children received child care assistance, and even fewer eligible children may receive assistance today. About half of eligible children are receiving Head Start services, and only 3 percent of eligible children participate in Early Head Start. While additional ARRA investments began to address the gaps between eligibility and actual usage, the gap remains huge. Current state rules make it difficult for families to get and keep child care assistance-some studies suggest that many families maintain their assistance for as few as three months at a time. Even when families get help paying for child care, there is very little high quality care available, especially for infants and toddlers, children with special needs, and families living in rural areas, very poor communities, and language minority communities.
The following components of high quality early childhood programs can be promoted through federal policy:
- Sufficient funding to attract and retain well-trained and qualified teachers in formal settings.
- Training and information for all providers, whether informal or formal, to address the developmental needs of all children, particularly those who may be more likely to experience the risk factors associated with poverty.
- Availability of and access to comprehensive services for families needing them, including: developmental screenings and follow-up treatment; child health, mental health, and nutrition services; and access to continuous and ongoing medical care, family support, and home visiting.
- Parental involvement opportunities for all parents, including those working full-time and those who may not speak English as their first language.
- Infrastructure supports to ensure ongoing monitoring and quality improvement, technical assistance in all aspects of the program, and program assessment in formal settings.
- Strategies to help children manage transitions to other classrooms or programs, including kindergarten.
- Inclusion of children with special needs in settings with typically developing children, along with supports to teachers and parents to help all children reach their full potential.
- Appropriately serving culturally and linguistically diverse children with bilingual and bicultural teachers and caregivers, and increasing training opportunities for all caregivers, including cultural competency and strategies for teaching English language learners.
- Responsiveness to the needs of working parents, ensuring that full workday options are available to families needing them-through planning, coordination, and collaboration with other community, state, and federal programs.
As part of its 2010 Federal Policy Recommendations, CLASP recommends that the Obama Administration work with Congress to:
Reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant to support access to high quality early childhood programs. Reauthorization should support increased access to high quality child care for low-income families. To do so, Congress should create a guarantee for child care assistance for all working families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This will guarantee a stable funding stream for states and will eliminate long waiting lists in many states, as well as eliminate the many different eligibility rules and requirements that exist. It also will make it easier for families to access and maintain the child care assistance they need to work.
Reauthorization can promote improved quality of child care settings through innovative investments, especially for underserved groups, including infants and toddlers and children in households that speak languages other than English, and through incentives to states and local programs. Specifically, changes to the law should help states expand investments in quality initiatives, expand licensing requirements and increase monitoring to ensure that all children in care are safe, and target assistance to children and child care providers who are limited English proficient. Finally, reauthorization should ensure that TANF families do not face barriers to access to quality care.
Reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to expand access to quality early childhood settings and improve linkages and transition to the early elementary grades. The flexibility that is currently in the ESEA law should be maintained to enable the use of funds for early childhood programs. In addition, language may be included to increase flexibility at the state level to promote use of Title I and other ESEA funding for children before the age of school entry and their teachers. Reauthorization can encourage focused investment by school districts on early childhood programs that are high quality and coordinated with the state and local early childhood systems. Finally, reauthorization should improve data collection to identify and evaluate program models that can meet the full-day and full-year needs of working families using a variety of funding streams.
Pass the Early Learning Challenge Fund. Early Learning Challenge Fund legislation is included in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. If passed, this fund would provide vital resources to states to increase the number of low-income children served in high-quality early childhood settings and challenge states to work toward comprehensive, high quality early education systems for children from birth to age 5 that include coordinated access to screening and developmental assessments, coordinated professional development systems, and the use of comprehensive data for assessing and improving children's access to high quality settings and school readiness.
Increase investments in Head Start and Early Head Start. The Obama Administration has noted the importance of Head Start and Early Head Start for poor children and the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education have announced plans to strengthen the program and align quality across early childhood settings. Increased resources will be vital to ensuring the program continues to provide high quality, comprehensive services to the most vulnerable children.
Help families offset child care costs through improvements to the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) makes child care more affordable for millions of families who are not eligible for child care assistance. Yet the structure of the credit, and the amount that families can claim, does not reflect costs to families, and ensures that the lowest income families cannot use the credit. Changes to the credit are needed to increase the amount of expenses families can claim, index the credit to inflation so that the amount available to families increases as the cost of care increases, and make the credit fully refundable.
Read all CLASP's 2010 Federal Policy Recommendations.