Federal Early Childhood Care and Education Programs: Advancing Opportunity Through Early Learning - AEI

Federal Early Childhood Care and Education Programs: Advancing Opportunity Through Early Learning


From the book "A Safety Net That Works," edited by Robert Doar

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The poor life prospects for children born into disadvantage in America are increasingly recognized as an urgent national concern. More than a third of children born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain there as adults, while just 41 percent make it into the middle quintile or above. For children in single-parent homes, opportunity is especially lacking: 50 percent of children in the bottom quintile raised by never-married mothers remain there as adults, compared to just 17 percent of children raised by continuously married parents.1 The circumstances that an American child is born into determine too much about his chances to succeed in life.

Since the War on Poverty was declared in 1965, America has relied on public education as the primary strategy for breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and advancing equal opportunity for all children. Over the past several decades, spending on the country's schools has escalated dramatically toward that end. Federal, state, and local governments spent a total of $636 billion on K–12 education in 2013–14.2 Public expenditures per student have doubled since the mid-1970s, reaching an average of more than $12,000 per student in 2012–13.3

A good education is key to social mobility and self-advancement. Yet it has become increasingly clear that K–12 schooling is falling short as our nation's primary engine of opportunity and human capital development. Three-quarters of low-income fourth graders and 80 percent of low-income eighth graders score below proficient in both reading and math on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Seventeen-year-olds' reading and math scores have remained flat for almost half a century (see Figure 1).4 Less than 40 percent of high school seniors scored at college- and career-ready levels on the 2015 NAEP exam, and just 5 percent of black students who took the ACT exam in 2013 were ready for college.5 The bottom line is that two trillion public dollars and decades of efforts to improve schools have produced little progress in the economic and social well-being of America's neediest citizens. Children born poor today are just as likely to stay poor as they were 45 years ago.6

Recent reform initiatives, such as expanding school choice, have been gaining momentum and show some encouraging results. But progress is slow, and millions of children are left behind every year. In addition to continuing these efforts, we need to pursue new approaches to build our nation's human capital and ensure that all children have an equal chance to realize their full potential. High-quality child care that helps the country's youngest, most disadvantaged children get a good start while enabling their parents to work is an especially promising strategy. Done right, it provides a powerful approach to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and advancing opportunity for two generations simultaneously.

Gaps Emerge Early

While we have long counted on K–12 schools to give children a strong start, often the schools' biggest task is to compensate for a weak start that handicaps many children long before they enter kindergarten. Developmental gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children have been observed among children as young as nine months.7 By 18 months, toddlers from low-income families can already be several months behind their more advantaged peers in language development.8 By age three, children with college-educated parents have vocabularies as much as three times larger than those whose parents did not complete high school.9 These gaps continue to widen: fewer than half of poor five-year-olds are ready for kindergarten, and some are up to two years behind their peers.10

In other words, many children enter school unprepared to succeed, and subsequent schooling largely fails to remediate those gaps.11 Indeed, K–12 schools often amplify, rather than diminish, the consequences of early disadvantage. Achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children widen as they progress through school, and over the past quarter century, widening gaps have been growing even larger.12

The Lifelong Importance of Children's First Years

A rapidly expanding body of research indicates that one cause of this problem is that we have greatly underestimated the importance of children's preschool years. Extraordinary development occurs from conception to age five, laying the foundation for lifelong health, intellectual ability, emotional well-being, and social functioning. In just the first 1,000 days, a child grows from a helpless infant to a running, jumping, climbing preschooler. And, although less visible, children's early cognitive, social, and emotional development mirrors this dramatic physical growth.

Human brains are not fully born—they are built, through the interactive influences of children's genes and early experiences. An infant's brain has about 100 billion brain cells, roughly the same number as an adult brain, but with many fewer connections between cells. In the first years of life, the brain's neural network expands exponentially, from around 2,500 connections per neuron at birth to about 15,000 connections between ages two and three, with rapid growth continuing into early elementary school (see Figure 2). Those new connections—called synapses—"wire" the structure of a young child's brain in response to the child's environment, driven almost entirely by his interactions with parents and other caretakers.

The developing brain is an integrated organ; emotional, social, and cognitive capacities are interconnected and interdependent. Foundational development begins at birth, peaks in the first few years of life, and is cumulative. Healthy development at any stage depends on healthy development in the previous stage as more complex neural connections and skills build on earlier, simpler ones. Neuroscientists from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child underscore, "Early experiences determine whether a child's developing brain architecture provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health."13

The bottom line is that a solid early foundation, constructed in the first years of life, is crucial to a child's opportunity to fulfill his potential. While children's physical development unfolds naturally given adequate nutrition and physical freedom, their cognitive, social, and emotional development is driven by time- and attention-intensive adult nurture and care. From birth, back-and-forth, language-rich communication in the context of secure, loving relationships with adult caregivers literally builds the architecture of children's brains. Just as a plant's growth depends on sufficient water and light, children's development depends on hour-to-hour, day-to-day interactions with caring, responsive adults.

So for better or for worse, the early experiences of babies and young children have a profound, lasting impact on the rest of their lives. Young children raised in nurturing, supportive families learn and develop well. But when children's early environments—whether at home or elsewhere—are unsupportive or even damaging, it can compromise their development and jeopardize their chances for success in school and beyond.

Large numbers of young children in the United States are affected by interrelated factors that put them at particular risk, such as poverty, single motherhood, and low parental education. Of the 20 million children under age five, 23 percent of all children, 34 percent of Hispanic children, and 43 percent of African American children are living in poverty.14 Almost half of all babies are born to women on Medicaid.15 Among poor children under age six, 65 percent live with a single parent, and 42 percent have a mother who lacks a high school degree.16 For many of these children, K–12 schooling—even starting in pre-K—is simply too little too late.

A New Strategy

Children do not choose their families. Yet they often pay a steep, lifelong price for being born into circumstances that fail to provide the early experiences promoting later academic, social, and economic success. Longer-term solutions to strengthening families, such as reducing single parenthood and increasing parental education and skills, are crucial.17 At the same time, helping disadvantaged babies born today is equally significant in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and family fragility.

Instead of continuing to rely on shopworn, often ineffective school-centered approaches, we need new strategies to improve the life chances of our youngest citizens. While parents bear the primary responsibility for their young children's upbringing, early care and learning programs that support vulnerable families in nurturing and developing their children hold great untapped potential to increase poor children's chances for success. By shifting the focus to reducing early gaps rather than remediating ever-worsening problems through K–12 schooling, early childhood programs target the very foundation of educational opportunity, providing an upstream approach that can help low-income children avoid falling behind before they even start school.

Reforming Federal Early Care and Education Programs

As the long-term impact of children's earliest years becomes increasingly clear, it has also become clear that federal early childhood programs are in urgent need of reform. Since 1935, the federal government has supported early care and education for poor children to promote their healthy development and give them a better chance to succeed. But the policymaking legacy of the past 80 years is a haphazard array of uncoordinated programs, shaped by outdated science and entrenched political interests, and long driven by addressing unintended consequences of previous policies rather than core goals.

The federal government now funds dozens of small programs providing services to children from birth through age five, but the preponderance of federal funds—$17.2 billion—is spent on three major programs: Head Start at $9.2 billion, the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) at $5.4 billion, and child care expenditures from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) at $2.6 billion annually.18 All three programs fund poor children's participation in early care and education, and all originated in efforts to promote children's healthy development.19 Yet today, they are disconnected from one another and lack coherent purpose. At the state and local levels, integrating disparate federal funding streams—each constrained by its own administration, rules, and monitoring frameworks—with growing city- and state-funded early childhood initiatives is difficult at best and often impossible.

At the heart of the current policy dysfunction lies a counterproductive conceptual split between custodial care and early education. While child care is recognized as an essential work support for adults, it also has a crucial impact on children during the most consequential phase of human development. Indeed, the commonly made distinction between "care" and "education" in early childhood is a false one, reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of early learning and development.

We now know that young children are continuously and rapidly learning, wherever they are and from whomever they are with, starting at birth. So while we have long thought of "school" as where children learn, the reality is that every environment—whether home, school, or child care—is a learning environment for young children. The only question is the quality of that environment and whether it promotes or impedes children's learning.

This has crucial implications for federal policy. Head Start has long been emphasized as the federal government's primary early education program. But because children often spend many more hours in child care, starting much earlier in their lives, child care can actually have a much greater impact on their development. That is, child care is early education, no matter what we call the program or the funding stream.

In fact, child care is unique among early childhood programs precisely because it serves multiple purposes. Unlike any other federal program, it lies at the intersection of three paths to reduce poverty and expand opportunity: increasing work, supporting vulnerable families, and laying the crucial groundwork for children's later school and life success.20 By promoting the complementary aims of adult responsibility and self-sufficiency on the one hand, and healthy child development on the other, child care offers a valuable strategy for two-generation human capital development in America's most disadvantaged communities. Yet Head Start, CCDF, and TANF all fall short of realizing the significant potential of this dual-generation approach to help needy families move ahead.

Head Start. Head Start has dominated the federal early childhood landscape for decades as the federal government's preschool program for poor children. Founded in 1965 as a centerpiece of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start reflects the then-emerging emphasis on schooling as the means to advance poor children. A half century later, it remains the largest and most visible federal early childhood program, with a total 2016 budget of $9.2 billion and spaces for almost 800,000 preschoolers in about 56,000 classrooms and 2,100 homes nationwide.21

Early Head Start, a much smaller arm of the program, aims to support the healthy development of low-income infants and toddlers through home visiting and center-based care, with spaces for about 170,000 infants, toddlers, and pregnant women annually.22

While science has borne out Head Start's long-standing focus on the importance of early childhood development, the program's implementation quality is uneven across the country23 and burdened by a half century of accumulated federal rules and regulations.24 Perhaps Head Start's biggest shortcoming, however, is that it does not meet the needs of low-income working families: most Head Start programs run just three and a half hours per day for 128 days per year. Only 9 percent of center-based slots provide services for a full workday, year-round.25

Child Care Development Fund and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. CCDF and TANF are the two major federal child care subsidy programs, aimed primarily at supporting low-income adults' participation in the labor market by helping them pay for child care.26 In 2014, the programs together provided almost $8 billion in child care subsidies.

With a total federal budget of $5.4 billion, CCDF served an average of 1.4 million children per month in 2014. Fifty-six percent (784,000) were under age five and in out-of-home care an average of 37 hours per week.27 TANF spent $2.6 billion federal dollars on child care subsidies in 2014; however, the program does not require detailed state reporting on families provided with TANF-funded child care, so the number of children served is not known.28

Although CCDF and TANF are now primarily focused on promoting adult work, they grew out of an early-20th-century effort to advance the development of disadvantaged children. The initial iteration of these programs, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), was the federal government's first early childhood program, enacted in 1935. ADC's goal was to allow poor mothers to exit the workforce and care for their young children at home, aiming to ensure children's "health in mind and body," in President Herbert Hoover's words, and thus open "the door of opportunity" for every child.29

As the 20th century wore on, however, ADC evolved into Aid to Families with Dependent Children, expanding its scope to explicitly include support for adults. Adult welfare rolls exploded, and policy focus gradually shifted from children's early development to the financial self-sufficiency of adults. Through welfare reform passed in 1996, today's CCDF and TANF programs were established, framing child care as a work support for adults while deemphasizing its role in children's early development.30

Since then, efforts to strengthen federal early childhood policy have largely been confined to tinkering with these three existing funding streams. Useful improvements have been made over the past several years, but current, long-established programs do not provide the best means for accomplishing our fundamental goals.31 We need new thinking to make substantial headway in improving the lives and life chances of poor children.

Moving Forward: A Better Approach

Family and child well-being are inextricably linked. Today's federal care and education programs for poor children from birth through age four must have two purposes: supporting parents' work in a modern, 24/7 economy and advancing children's healthy growth and learning. Those two aims are complementary, equally important strategies for building human capital in disadvantaged communities.

For most of history, early human development has been accomplished through full-time maternal care. But when low-income mothers of young children have to work outside the home to support their children financially, they cannot provide the time-intensive nurturing and care that is as necessary as material security for children's adequate development. A work-based safety net can unintentionally harm children, families, and society if it means that disadvantaged children are spending a large proportion of their most crucial developmental years in inadequate, counterproductive settings. While conditioning the social safety net on work improves children's financial security and helps adults move ahead, the gaps left for children's early development must also be addressed to advance the ultimate aim of ensuring opportunity for all.

The best path forward for federal early childhood programs is to realign them around a child care focus, strengthening whole families by simultaneously supporting healthy child development and adult work. Here are three principles to guide a dual-generation approach targeted at those most at risk.

Child care advances children by fostering their learning and development. Among children under age six, 65 percent of children overall and three in four African American children have all residential parents in the workforce.32 Almost 11 million American children under five are now in out-of-home care, for an average of 36 hours a week.33 So while children's home environment has the greatest impact, the second-most influential environment for many young children is child care.

Indeed, child care, long seen as an important safety net program to support parental work, has an equally important function as public education—investing in young children's human capital so they can grow into healthy, happy, and productive adults. Our current public school system emerged at a time when mothers remained at home to care full time for their young children, building the foundation necessary for children's success in school. However, as increasing numbers of low-income parents are working full time outside the home, the public role in supporting children's early learning and development becomes much more significant. Rather than trying to remediate early educational disadvantage in K–12 schools, it makes more sense to reduce that disadvantage by helping parents lay a strong foundation in the first place.

The Abecedarian Project provides an outstanding example of high-quality, educational child care. A well-known model preschool program run in North Carolina from 1972 to 1985, it served poor children 50 hours a week for five years, starting just after birth and continuing until they entered kindergarten while their mothers finished school and found employment. A rigorous study carried out over the past half century has shown extraordinarily positive, long-term social and economic outcomes—far stronger than those of any Head Start or pre-K program studied—demonstrating child care's potential efficacy in advancing the well-being of poor children.34

Child care advances adults by supporting and rewarding work. Child care of any kind supports parental work. Yet while child care subsidies have been shown to increase work, research also shows that they can harm young children's academic, social, and emotional development if used to pay for poor-quality care.35 And if subsidies are inadequate to purchase high-quality care, they can also fall short in promoting work because some parents may be reluctant to jeopardize their children's developmental well-being as a trade-off for improving their financial security.

At the same time, high-quality, educational child care can both incentivize and reward—as well as support—work. Parents care deeply about their children, and many may be additionally motivated to work if employment provides access to good early learning programs, empowering them to further their children's developmental and financial well-being simultaneously. Coupling work with high-quality child care honors the dignity of parenthood, promoting self-sufficiency while helping parents lay the early groundwork that enables their children to have a better future than their own.

Child care advances family well-being by supporting children and working parents together. A focus on adult work to the exclusion of child development leaves out half the family equation.While having self-sufficient, working parents can benefit children by providing increased income and positive role models, it can also detract from child and family well-being by leaving less time for young children and increasing parental stress.36

High-quality child care can fill in gaps left when parents do not have enough time or social capital to invest sufficiently in their children's development. It can strengthen parents' child-rearing skills.37 And it can both compensate for the effects of parental stress on children, while also removing some of that stress because parents know their children are in a stable, high-quality environment that supports their development. Done correctly, child care advances whole families, helping two generations at the same time and amplifying the impact on each.

A Crucial Role for Federal Leadership

Unlike K–12, early childhood care and education largely remains a decentralized, market-based sector, making it an ideal arena for innovation. Yet pressures for counterproductive regulation and centralized control have been growing rapidly. The federal government plays a large role in public spending on care and education programs for children under five and is well positioned to provide prudent leadership at this pivotal moment for the field.

What is needed now is countering the misguided push for pre-K, facilitating state and local experimentation to align federal funding around advancing families, and promoting rigorous research and innovation that increases our knowledge about what works best for children and families.

Counter the misguided push for pre-K. An increasing number of states, both red and blue, are committed to boosting investment in the well-being of disadvantaged young children. Powerful coalitions of K–12 stakeholders are seizing this opportunity to push for expanding pre-K nationwide.38 The number of states with publicly funded pre-K programs has increased from 10 to 45 since 1980, and state spending on pre-K has risen from $2.4 billion in 2002 to almost $7 billion in 2016.39

But tacking a pre-K grade onto often-underperforming public schools is the wrong strategy for supporting vulnerable children and their families. A few hours a day of school for four-year-olds neither serves working parents nor adequately meets the developmental needs of many at-risk children. And pre-K expansion often precludes state spending on more effective early childhood approaches. As states continue to make crucial decisions about new early childhood investments, the federal government can play a timely and invaluable role by highlighting—and even incentivizing—smarter ways to invest in the most disadvantaged children and their families.

Promote alignment of federal funding streams at the state level around the dual goals of child development and adult work. The best way for the federal government to advance good early childhood policy is to support the work of leading, innovative states, allowing them to break down government silos and focus on the needs of children and families rather than the demands of bureaucracy.

One promising strategy is for the federal government to experiment with a competitive program that offers waivers enabling leading states to align early care and education dollars around the dual goals of advancing healthy child development and supporting adult work.40 Using this approach, states could propose five-year pilot projects that increase access to high-quality early learning programs for disadvantaged children from birth through age four and, simultaneously, serve the needs of low-income working parents.

Approved states would be given flexibility to combine their state dollars with CCDF, TANF, and Head Start funds into a single pool, all subject to high, evidence-based standards of quality, established and enforced by the state. Means-tested scholarships would be provided directly to poor and low-income parents to use at the state-approved program of their choice. Providers that meet defined state guidelines—whether public, private, nonprofit, for-profit, center-based, home-based, Head Start, or religious providers—would be eligible for scholarship payments, stressing value for children and families rather than federal funding stream or tax status.

Minnesota's Early Learning Scholarship Program

Minnesota's Early Learning Scholarship program provides a good model of a market-based, choice-driven approach. The program provides scholarships to poor and low-income families to pay for early care and education at a broad range of state-approved providers.

With support from the business and philanthropic sectors, the state of Minnesota operates Parent Aware, a system that rates the quality of early education providers on a scale of one to four stars. Parent Aware helps parents choose the best place for their child by providing accessible, user-friendly information on providers' locations, characteristics, and quality.

Providers must participate in Parent Aware to qualify for the state's approved-provider network and be eligible to receive scholarship dollars. Over time, providers are required to meet a three- or four-star level to participate and are thus incentivized to raise quality to remain in the network and better attract parents.41

The goal would be to support states in building market-based, choice-driven early childhood systems. These systems would increase the supply of reliable, high-quality early care and education programs that accommodate parents' work schedules, while ensuring that parents have sufficient information and means to make optimal decisions for their children.

This approach eliminates the counterproductive distinction between custodial and developmental settings and incentivizes state innovation and experimentation around how best to serve poor children and working parents. It makes states and programs accountable to parents as the final decision makers for their children. And it empowers parents to choose what is best for their family's well-being and their child's healthy development.

Advance research and innovation. Finally, we badly need better knowledge about what works in early learning programs for children from birth to five, both to improve current approaches and inform future action. The federal government has an essential role to play by supporting research on program effectiveness and investing in smaller-scale demonstration projects to test new approaches. Rigorous evaluation should be required of all programs, both established and experimental.

An Early Learning Research Program—modeled on the successful federal Small Business Innovation Research program for technology—could fund the development and testing of entrepreneurial, field-initiated ideas in multiple areas of early learning.42 An online Federal Clearinghouse on Early Learning could disseminate evidence on existing initiatives, highlight best practices to inform smart policymaking, and spark new thinking on persistent problems.


The first 60 months are the most crucial developmental period of a child's life. The cognitive, social, and emotional growth that occurs from birth to age five lays the essential groundwork for all future learning and success. And too many children enter kindergarten so far behind that they can never catch up. Improving the well-being of America's youngest, most vulnerable children is crucial to both their life chances and the success of our country as a whole.

Federal early childhood programs play a key role in addressing inequality of opportunity and lack of economic mobility for disadvantaged children. Targeting investment to children's earliest years is sensible policy because it aims to build a strong foundation in the first place rather than trying to fix expensive, preventable problems down the line. Too often, though, our thinking is limited by what currently exists, not driven by what we are actually trying to accomplish. We need new strategies to accomplish our core aim: promoting the well-being of poor children so they can grow into healthy, happy, productive citizens.

The best path forward is to align funding around advancing disadvantaged families through a two-generation human capital development strategy that simultaneously enables adult work and supports young children's learning and development. By amplifying the impact of currently siloed programs and reducing regulatory and fiscal barriers to innovation, this solution-oriented, whole-family approach will increase states' capacity to support strong families and give America's least-advantaged children a fair chance at a good life.

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