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How the Child Care Crisis Affects Us All

Having published a book on this topic, Elliot Haspel asks why teachers aren’t sounding the loudest alarms.

February 13, 2020
Child care expert Elliot Haspel

Elliot Haspel

Author of 'Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It'

Child care expert Elliot Haspel

Elliot Haspel

Author of 'Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It'

When I worked as an elementary school teacher, beginning in Phoenix in 2006, I knew that the experiences kids had in early childhood powerfully impacted student outcomes.

When I moved on to working in early childhood policy and absorbing the science of cognitive development, I saw even more clearly how a lack of public investment in the birth-to-5 years was limiting children’s opportunities.

But it wasn’t until my peers and I started to have young children of our own that I realized the breadth and depth of the pain points around child care, and how much the struggle affects every decision we make—even whether to have more children. Although well aware of the desperate lack of choices for families with lower incomes, I was stunned by how paying for child care was stressing friends who earned educators’ or nonprofit professionals’ salaries. Considering high rents, student loans, and health care, our family budgets were like Jenga towers, obliterated when we threw in the boulder of child care costs.

Put simply, the child care crisis poses existential threats to both families and public education, and we need to start reckoning with those threats before it’s too late.

You probably know the facts: Two out of three children under the age of 5 need someone to care for them while all their available parents work. You may not know that according to Child Care Aware of America, the average price of putting your child in care for a year is upward of $10,000 and rising fast.

Despite these sky-high fees, the structural economics of child care are broken. With laughably little public funding, providers (whether in homes or in centers) need to employ a low ratio of adults to children. They’re barely able to keep their doors open. Take a moment to Google child care closures in your city or state; you’ll be disheartened by the results. This doesn’t even get at quality, which is hard to achieve when center staff members churn through jobs that pay, shamefully, an average of $10.72 an hour.

America is facing a moment to finally address the crisis of inadequate child care. Let’s not waste it by pleading for subsidies that will help only a few or by trying to make it more affordable around the edges.

The only real solution is to start treating birth-to-5 child care the way our country treats K-12 education: as a common good that is universally available, free for all families, and fully supported by public dollars. Regardless of where quality care is provided—in homes, schools, or centers—that single shift could do more for educators and students than nearly any other policy.

The question I ask myself is: Now that child care at long last has the nation’s attention, why aren’t K-12 teachers and leaders out in front calling for change? Because you, I, and everyone else who is invested in educational equity should be leading the charge.

You can start, if you’d like, with self-interest. Public school teachers take some of the hardest hits from the child care crisis. As a teacher, you exist in what might be termed a “doughnut hole” of child care access. On your own, you earn too much to be eligible for means-tested supports like child care subsidies or Head Start. But you earn too little to afford most of what few child care options exist, especially if you dare to have more than one young child.

The consequence? Many teachers have no choice but to leave the classroom, an unwelcome echo of the bad old days when female teachers were forced to resign when they got pregnant. A handful of school districts have begun to respond by offering on-site child care for teachers. For instance, four districts in Colorado offer their teachers slots in dedicated programs housed at local high schools. But combined, these districts only have around 80 slots. This is not a scalable solution.

Apart from supporting pre-K for 4- (and sometimes 3-) year-olds, educators and school system leaders have mostly stayed away from calls for universal child care. This missed alliance is a huge problem. Without the political might of teachers, superintendents, and other K-12 actors, the early childhood sector will continue to struggle for even meager progress.

When we think about how child care is stressing families with incomes well above poverty level, this may be one time when making headway on policy requires focusing as much on adults as children. Child care is a vital workforce issue for public school teachers. If trendlines continue, more teachers will be dumped out of the profession as they’re hitting what should be the  prime of their careers. And would-be teachers with any hope of having families in the future will avoid the profession altogether.

Thankfully, there are at long last significant efforts underway, although none go so far as to make child care a completely free common good. The Child Care for Working Families Act, currently sitting in the U.S. Senate, would cap child care expenses at 7% of a family’s income and make child care free for lower-income families. Educators could help advocate for this legislation or join a new coalition effort called the Grassroots Movement for Child Care and Early Education designed to build public will for major changes.

The birth-to-5 years need massive public investment so all children arrive in their K-12 teachers’ classrooms ready to thrive, yes. But if we don’t do something about how parents are staggering under the costs of child care, we’re not even going to have enough teachers to fill those classrooms.

Illustration by Natalie Nelson

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