Can we finally change our sexist funding policies for early care and education? February 12, 2020

Imagine this: You are a parent, and you are also working full-time outside of the home. Your employer is located about 45 minutes away, so you’re out of the house from about 8:00 am to 6:00 pm every day – 10 hours away from your baby, toddler, or young child. You and your family depend on a child care provider – one that is affordable, located in your neighborhood, and open early and late for 5 days a week and 12 months a year. Oh, and your kids spend those hours engaged in age-appropriate learning and development activities offered by loving staff.

Unfortunately, “imagine” is the key word here – because this kind of child care center is extremely rare in lower-income communities.

In a country that espouses family values and work, why are these quality, full-service centers so rare? And why are the meager subsidy dollars that support lower-income families so difficult for providers to use? The answers lie in the history of the early care and education (ECE) movements and the 20th century policies that continue to strap cement boots to the legs of every ECE provider.


Care v. Education

The United States does not have a child care system – it has what Abby J. Cohen calls in her excellent A Brief history of Federal Financing for Child care in the United States “a collection of funding streams.” And it’s not a single collection; it’s 50 collections. Just in IFF’s 10-state Midwest region, there are eight different income qualifications for child care support, six different qualifications for early learning programs, and two states that do not offer a Pre-K program. There is no common quality rating system, and, until last year, the State of Missouri actually prohibited state agencies from creating one.

This collection of systems is not at all based on the needs of working families or the science of child brain development. This is a legacy grounded in two divergent movements:

  • “Child care” is the non-parental care of children from birth to age 13, including after-school and summer care for school-aged children. This work evolved from the “day nursery” movement of the late 19th century, which later evolved into “day care,” and finally into “child care” and;
  • “Early education,” including what many call Pre-K, evolved from the “nursery school” movement that began in the early 20th century and focused on children’s physical, social, and emotional development. These schools primarily served middle- and upper-middle class families who could afford to pay for the opportunity, and they were seen as a means of enabling children to achieve future success.

Today’s ECE providers need a Ph.D. in finance just to manage compliance with the myriad funding streams and oversight agencies that grew out of these divergent movements – and that still dictate how financial resources flow.


Sexism & Classism

As you can imagine, these ECE funding polices created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were steeped in sexism and classism.

At the turn of the 19th century, women with children were married and cared for their children while their husbands worked. Day nurseries (in the “care” category) were for children of widowed moms who needed to work and provide for their families. And even then, so powerful was the idea that those women should be caring for their children, public policy in many states focused on providing pensions (later welfare) so that moms with young children could stay home and take care of her children. This framework influenced public policy up to the 1990s, with a brief hiatus during WWII.

During WWII, when women “manned” our weapons factories, the country didn’t have a way of caring for their children while they did so. Enter the Lanham Act of 1940, which funded the creation and operation of hundreds of child care centers around the country. Most of the centers were operated by education agencies, so they blended early education with full-day and full-year care for the working mothers. The centers charged flat fees, and subsidies were provided for all families, regardless of income. The Act also provided funding for facilities.

That’s right – the U.S. government once funded a quality Universal Child Care program.

Of course, when the war ended, women were sent back home to care for their children, and we shut down almost all of the centers.

Meanwhile, the nursery school movement (“education” category) continued to serve middle- and upper-income families for a short portion of the day and part of the year. Lower-income families didn’t have this kind of option until 1967, with the creation of Head Start. Because Head Start was modeled after the “education” movement, not the “care” movement, it’s still a part-day, part-year program. In fact, up until the 2000s, “part-day” was just 3 hours. The program has evolved somewhat, with most programs now mimicking the school day and school year – but that’s not exactly helpful if you have work and commute for 10-12 hours, or if you don’t get summers off.


Demographics create pressure for change

While the divergent movements continued to rally around the particulars of advocating for more money to increase quality and access, the nation’s economy, demographics, and social mores all began to have an effect on the number of children needing care. Women’s participation in the work force increased from 33% in 1948 to 46% in 1975.

These pressures, along with the growing understanding of early learning on children’s later success, culminated in The Comprehensive Child Development Act that passed Congress with bi-partisan support in 1971.

The bill basically supported the kind of full-service care and education center that we imagined at the beginning of this piece. It reconciled the two divergent care and education movements into a coherent system, and it established care as an entitlement to all children regardless of “economic, social, or family background.”

Then President Nixon vetoed the bill, pitting “communal approaches to child rearing” against “the family-centered approach” – and yes, “family centered” meant “mom should stay home.”

In essence, that veto still stands today. That sexism and classism still stands today. And as more and more mothers have entered the workforce – up from 39% of women with children under age six in 1975 to 65% in 2016 – it has become harder and harder for ECE providers to stitch together outdated and disconnected funding streams to serve them.

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To be clear, I am not criticizing the incredible people who are trying their best to provide care and education to young children – particularly in lower-income communities. On the contrary, I’m in awe of the Athenian efforts we see from child care providers who are stitching together funding from outdated policies grounded in sexism and classism.

In the absence of better policy, dogged child care leaders will continue to cobble together resources that honor the realities of women’s equality. And IFF will continue to help them find creative ways to expand within the limitations of this fractured collection of ECE funding programs (a topic of my next blog post).

But the real call to action is this: we need to return to 1971 (or 1941) and the idea of a federal policy that views care and education as a single, holistic system with funding that can make affordable, full-day, full-year, high-quality care and education a reality for all families – regardless of where they live and how much money they make.

If bell bottoms can return, so can smart child care policy.