THE SHUTTERING of daycares last spring made apparent to workers and employers alike the importance of childcare to a functioning economy. Now, experts hope that one silver lining of the pandemic will be rethinking how the childcare system works – how it is structured and how it is paid for.
“What I hope is that we will hang on to some of the lessons we’ve learned, which is one very simple one — that early care and education is absolutely central to family life and to a functioning economy,” said Stephanie Jones, co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Jones and the initiative’s co-director, Nonie Lesaux, spoke on The Codcast about the changing childcare landscape. Both said they hope a new focus on childcare funding by President Biden can improve the historically underfunded industry.
“I think the Biden administration is onto something, which is that we need a real stimulus and we need to depart from traditional funding mechanisms and build in more flexibility and more innovation to bring more stability and continuity to the field,” Lesaux said. That might mean paying centers based on their capacity rather than on a per-child basis, so if a center loses a child for a few weeks, it does not automatically lose money, she said. The funding should match “the scale and the scope of the setting and its service to that community and those families,” she said.
Massachusetts’s childcare system today is largely private pay, with some state subsidies available for low-income families. The state has some of the nation’s most expensive childcare, and even with that, childcare workers are low paid resulting in high turnover.
Some state advocates have been pushing for more public funding of childcare. Biden’s proposed COVID-19 stimulus package would include $40 billion for childcare, with money for both providers and families.
Jones said an important part of the Biden-Harris approach is that it considers the family as a whole, and takes into account the needs of families, childcare workers, and centers. She said policies should consider initiatives like expanding the child tax credit along with providing professional development and a living wage for early educators. Lesaux noted that countries with strong universal pre-kindergarten often combine that with other family supports, like longer paid maternity leave.
In the short term, Jones said, there is a need to support families and children as society emerges from the pandemic. The pandemic has created stress for families, which can affect children. Many children have been pulled out of group settings.
“I worry less that children are missing out on some really important developmental milestone because we know from evidence that children bounce back and those skills can be built later on,” Jones said. “I do worry a little when we head toward reopening that we will skip over spending some time on those key social emotional skills because we’re really worried about things like learning loss.”
Longer term, Jones and Lesaux said the question becomes whether society will shift toward treating childcare more like a public good – similar to K-12 education – and whether new efforts will let states experiment with more flexible methods of providing care. For example, if flexible work opportunities increase, parents may no longer be looking for the standard weekday nine-to-five care.
“I think it’s an open question whether we can seize the moment to really lift it up in ways that are lasting and transformative for a sector that has been relatively fragile and under-attended to,” Lesaux said.