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The Investment Our Youngest Learners Need

Expansion of pre-K is welcome, but it shouldn't come at the expense of the needs of infants and toddlers.

Black woman surrounded by white toddlers.
(AP/Elaine Thompson)
One of the most promising policy trends we have seen in recent years, regardless of political affiliation or geography, is a commitment to early childhood education by state leadership. From California to the Carolinas, governors and lawmakers are prioritizing young children and their families. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, state funding for pre-kindergarten exceeded $8.1 billion in 2018, up $280 million from 2017.

The wave of support for pre-K is critical to improving education outcomes, but it should not come at the cost of equally crucial investments that start earlier in a child's life. Expansions in public pre-K enrollment have serious, largely unrecognized implications for families with infants and toddlers.

Caring for infants and toddlers is more intensive and expensive than caring for preschoolers. High-quality child-care programs require well trained, highly skilled teachers with the time and resources to maximize every interaction. While child-care subsidies are intended to help working families access care for infants and toddlers, they are not enough to cover the cost of high-quality care.

Historically, serving more 3- and 4-year-olds has been one way to address the cost gap while continuing to serve infants and toddlers at subsidized rates. School-based pre-K complicates this strategy. With 1.6 million children annually attending public pre-K programs, fewer parents of 3- and 4-year-olds are in the market for child care for preschoolers, which is what made it possible for early childhood providers to care for infants and toddlers at a reasonable cost.

In most states, the gap between current child-care subsidy rates and the true cost of quality child care is significant. On average, child care for an infant costs 61 percent more than for a preschooler, yet overall child-care subsidy rates are only 27 percent higher for infants than preschoolers. In Oregon, for example the subsidy rate for infants is $16,140 a year, yet the true cost of high-quality care is estimated at upwards of $24,000. The gap narrows significantly for 3- and 4-year-olds, with subsidy rates at $12,600 a year and the actual cost of high-quality early learning coming in at $14,700.

Policymakers may not be aware of the symbiotic relationship between child care and pre-K, and how changing one program impacts the other. An effective support system for families with young children creates a continuum of learning that reflects everything we know about the science of human development. When public investments are siloed to a specific age group, there can be unintended consequences, which ultimately have the greatest impact on parents who are already stressed in the earliest months and years of caring for a child.

Fortunately, the higher costs for infant and toddler care providers can be mitigated with a comprehensive approach to early childhood education, which establishes funding for programs, educators and services that support preschoolers, assists families as they transition to parenthood, and makes high-quality child care and learning environments more accessible and affordable to all.

Illinois, for example, has set aside funding for infants and toddlers as part of its state pre-K legislation. The Prevention Initiative funded by the state's Early Childhood Block Grant is required to reserve 25 percent of those funds for programs that support infants and toddlers.

In the District of Columbia, policymakers are building on the successful expansion of pre-K programs over the past decade by focusing on the needs of infants, toddlers and their families. The Birth-to-Three for All DC legislation, passed in June 2018, seeks to fully fund the district's child-care subsidy program while improving access to services and programs that support children and families in the earliest years, and it calls for competitive compensation for early educators.

In North Carolina, policymakers have increased the infant-toddler child-care subsidy to the 100 percent of the market rate in 80 of the state's 100 counties and are also offering increased compensation to teachers in infant and toddler programs who earn associate's and bachelor's degrees.

While we continue to expand pre-K programs across the country, we should also think of ways to leverage this bipartisan support to provide for our youngest learners. As more states expand pre-K, policymakers should not short-change high-quality infant and toddler care. Instead, infant and toddler subsidies should reflect the true cost of high-quality care. To see a return on the progress we have made, we must ensure that our children enter kindergarten ready to learn and equipped with the skills to excel.

Director of the Pritzker Children's Initiative
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