National momentum is building around the strong public demand for universal, affordable high-quality child care. Earlier this month, essayist Katha Pollit argued in the New York Times that “The progressive to-do list is missing a very important idea… universal, affordable, high-quality child care.” Last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced universal child care as part of her presidential campaign. And today, progressives have an important opportunity to keep this significant idea front and center as Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) re-introduce the Child Care for Working Families Act.

This bold legislation would ensure everyone can afford high quality child care and early learning options that invest in teachers and caregivers. The bill has widespread, even bipartisan, support among the public, as well as solid research supporting why it should be a priority for addressing healthy child development, family economic security, gender, racial and income inequality, and creating good jobs and economic activity. But there’s one asset the bill doesn’t yet have: a comprehensive state policy in place from which to learn and on which to model itself. It’s time to change that.

State Models Matter

When the Affordable Care Act passed in Congress, it had the benefit of Massachusetts’s health care policy to learn from and model itself on. While that didn’t stop opponents from creating false narratives to scare the public away from progressive health care policy, it did help earnest policymakers create an effective policy and make a compelling case that it could work. Similarly, the six states and Washington, D.C. that have passed paid family and medical leave laws are serving as helpful models for the FAMILY Act, and the lessons that come from the states will help strengthen that piece of federal legislation. It follows then that state leaders who prioritize child care and early education will not only be serving their own constituents in immensely valuable ways, but also setting important national precedent.

State leaders who prioritize child care and early education will not only be serving their own constituents in immensely valuable ways, but also setting important national precedent.

State Budgets: Reflections of Values as Well as of Constraints

Budgeting for child care and early education is not an easy task. Elected officials face the challenge of re-prioritizing their budgets to pay for comprehensive child care and early education programs. State budgets must be balanced, so leaders cannot propose policies that spend money on these policies without a clear plan to pay for it—and good child care policies cost a lot of money. Yet, not investing in these policies has even greater costs—in lost opportunities for healthy child development; in the public assistance on which caregivers and teachers rely because of insufficient wages in foregone wages and tax revenues from parents who drop out of the workforce or are simply less productive at work without consistent quality child care; the tough choices parents have to make between child care expenses and college or retirement savings; and more besides. Some governors and legislators are recognizing this, and crafting their budget proposals and legislation to mirror their professed priorities this year—on children, families, and early educators.

A Continuum of Care and Early Education Means No Either/Or

The need to redistribute resources also causes some leaders to believe that they need to choose among competing priorities—like paid family and medical leave, child care, and pre-K—when, in fact, these policies are all part of the same continuum of care and early education. Families who use paid parental leave still need great child care options when their leave ends. Children in universal pre-K programs need care while school is closed and their parents are at work, including after 3 p.m. and all summer long (in most states). In fact, all parents of school-age children need coverage during those out-of-school times, and those who work beyond or outside weekday daytime hours need evening and weekend care. Any investment in one part of the system—paid leave, child care, or pre-K—should be a down payment on the other part. None are enough on their own, and all are part of the continuum of good child care and early education policy.

Public Investment Must Include Both Affordability for Families and a Raise for Early Educators

In the same way, any good policy must address affordability, flexibility, and improving the quality and pay of early education jobs, which is the right thing to do for teachers and caregivers and essential to quality care and education. That’s why the Child Care for Working Families Act is a great model for state legislation: it makes high quality child care options affordable for every family, raises compensation for early educators, and invests in pre-K. (It’s also why any strong progressive agenda also must include paid family and medical leave.)

States That Are Leading the Way

Currently, state-based child care and early education options reflect the patchwork of options offered by the federal government, with some states offering more options than others. At most, states offer a combination of financial assistance to the lowest income families based on the federal child care and development block grant (CCDBG), tax credits to middle and upper class families, and some preschool options. While no state currently has a comprehensive child care and early education plan in place, a number of states are taking steps toward creating such a system. An ideal system offers the same type of plan to every family—one that provides real-time help on a regular basis so families can afford to pay for care when the bill comes due. A sliding scale system is key to ensuring that the families who need the most help receive it, but the same system for every family helps ensure fairness and recognizes that public investments in child care and early education serves the whole community, not only the families who receive the assistance.

The same system for every family helps ensure fairness and recognizes that public investments in child care and early education serves the whole community, not only the families who receive the assistance.

Universal Child Care Bills

In Washington and Massachusetts, bold child care reform bills have been introduced this legislative session. The Washington CAN (Childcare Access Now) Act (HB 1344), introduced by Representative Kristine Reeves (D) in the House and Senator Claire Wilson (D) in the Senate (SB 5436), is similar to the Child Care for Working Families Act. It commits to access to high quality, affordable child care for all Washington families by 2025. It addresses affordability for families, with a plan to provide financial assistance so that no family pays more than 7 percent of their income for care, as well as to raise the wages of the workforce and invest in quality care. A strong coalition, including MomsRising, Children’s Alliance, SEIU 925 and many of the other organizations involved in the successful paid family and medical leave bill in Washington, is leading the advocacy for this bill.

In Massachusetts, where pioneering health care reform helped pave the way for the Affordable Care Act, Representative Kenneth Gordon (D) and Senator Cindy Friedman (D) have introduced broad legislation (HD 1879/SD 1744) to provide affordable, high quality early education and child care options to families when they need it, as well as to invest in the workforce. A diverse table of advocates—including the Coalition for Social Justice and many others responsible for the successful paid family and medical leave effort in Massachusetts—is supporting this effort, which has the potential to be a game changer for families in the state.

Gubernatorial Budget Proposals (and Speeches) That Reflect a Commitment to Child Care and Early Education

At least fifteen of the governors who were elected in November 2018 prioritized child care and early education during their campaigns. For example, in California, Governor Gavin Newsom’s education platform focused on “cradle-to-career,” including prenatal care, universal preschool for all four-year-olds, affordable child care, and nurse home visits for new parents. In New Mexico, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham promised to invest in universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds as well as improving access to child care assistance. Both are starting to make good on these promises. Governor Newsom included nearly $2 billion in his first proposed budget for early education and child care programs, while Governor Lujan Grisham proposed a $60 million increase in the budget toward a five-year plan to provide the promised universal preschool for every three- and four-year-old in her state. She is also supporting an effort led by legislators to amend the state constitution to allow funding from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to be used for early childhood services. If the amendment, which would generate more than $130 million a year for child care and early education, is successful, it would be placed on the ballot in 2020. Other legislative efforts in the New Mexico legislature would expand pre-K and child care access, improve compensation for the early care workforce, and establish a Department of Early Care and Education to focus the state’s efforts that target young children.

It’s still early into these new gubernatorial terms. In some states, governors have begun the conversation and still have the opportunity to lead the way on bold reform. For example, Governor J. B. Pritzker in Illinois, whose five-point campaign plan for early childhood education was central to his campaign, spoke in his inaugural address about the importance of child care and paid leave. His office also told reporters that child care assistance would be an early priority. And while the fiscal situation in Illinois is challenging, the commitment to change is promising. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz who also spoke about the importance of early care and education on the campaign trail, highlighting the importance of “Expanding options for affordable child care” in his inaugural address. In advance of the submission of his budget, the Minnesota legislature has proposed new investments toward these goals. In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis has started out with a focus on the pre-K and full-day kindergarten part of the child care and early education continuum.

States Taking Steps Toward Larger Child Care Reform Efforts

Other states, while not tackling universal child care head on, are making incremental (and in some cases, larger) changes that will benefit families in the short term and be important building blocks for the long term. These measures have been made more feasible because of the historic increase in the CCDBG in the last Congress, which sent more than $2.3 billion to the states to improve their child care programs.

These funds are desperately needed to make up for historic underfunding, and many states are using them well, putting them towards expanding eligibility, raising wages, and improving quality. But much more is needed make affordable, quality child care available to all families that need it. Progress is being made across the country in states with both Republican and Democratic leadership. For example, Louisiana’s Early Childhood Care and Education Commission recently unanimously approved a plan to provide child care assistance to more families. Similarly, last year, Arkansas, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas used their CCDBG increases to serve more children, while Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin were among the states raising payment rates. Higher payment rates can help give teachers and caregivers a pay raise, as the current hourly wage is, on average, just $10.

The Potential for a Lasting Legacy

Today’s re-introduction of the Child Care for Working Families Act exemplifies the type of bold vision that leaders should strive for in their own states, while Congress also works to move federal legislation. State leaders have an exciting opportunity to be the first to address universal child care and early education. The governors and legislators who do take that step will be part of a significant legacy of setting the children, families, and early educators in their states up for success, while paving the way for bold national reform at the same time.

This commentary was supported by the Women’s Economic Justice Project, a NoVo Foundation-funded initiative sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.