The child care package — led by Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia — addresses a basic math problem. There are not enough spots in child care centers for those who need them, and child care workers earn less than workers in 98 percent of occupations. Yet care is unaffordable for many families, so providers cannot significantly raise prices. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in September, “Child care is a textbook example of a broken market.”
That dynamic is why most other rich countries subsidize child care, and many European countries effectively start public school at age 3.
The proposal also requires that teachers in child care classrooms be paid a livable wage, equivalent to that of elementary teachers with the same credentials. Now, the median wage for elementary teachers is $34 an hour, compared with $15 for preschool teachers and $12 for child care workers, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. Also as part of the proposal, pre-K lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field, though they would be given six years to get the degree, with some exemptions based on professional experience.
“You cannot sustain a work force on poverty-level wages,” said Lea Austin, executive director of the center. “These reforms will be the best demonstration of just how valuable the child care work force is to the public good.”
States would come up with a formula for how much child care should cost, factoring in high-quality care and higher wages. Then, parents would pay their share, similar to a co-pay at a doctor’s office, and the rest of the money would be sent to the providers, financed mostly by the federal government and partly by the states. If parents chose to send their children to more expensive preschools, they would pay the difference.
There is also an option for states to opt out of the programs, though local governments can join even if their state doesn’t.
The subsidies could be used at all licensed child care centers and preschools that also meet new federal requirements for quality, including those in homes, churches and public schools. The proposal includes money for improving the quality of care, starting new centers, expanding supply at existing ones and improving facilities. To start, states would be required to spend a quarter of the federal subsidies on increasing supply, because many parts of the country don’t have enough child care spots, and demand is expected to increase.
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