In February, 2019, Jessica Flook from Portland, Oregon, shared her story with the Oregon House of Representatives’ Committee on Human Services and Housing, which is considering a number of child care bills. Jessica has been working in the child care industry for almost ten years at a high-quality child care center, where she has been the director. Now that she’s also a mother of a 9-month-old, she is looking for employment outside of the child care industry, because the sector doesn’t pay well enough for her partner and her to afford child care—though it does pay just enough for her to be ineligible for the state’s existing child care financial assistance aimed at low-wage workers. As she explained:

“If I could afford to bring my child to a high quality child care center, it would change the path our family life is currently taking. My partner and I could have a moment together to begin building the business we dream of, we could have more time together than simply passing along information about our child’s day before heading out to our respective jobs and passing the duty of care to the other, and most importantly, my son could have the opportunity to learn with and from other people his age in an environment which was built with him in mind.”1

Jessica’s story exemplifies many of the challenges in child care that families and early educators face today, and throughout the country. For the purposes of this report, child care refers to any nonparental care, including child care centers, family child care providers, family, friends and neighbors, and nannies, as well as afterschool and summer programs. It also includes pre-K, since publicly funded pre-K provides a safe, nurturing place to go to for children who would otherwise be in need of care, although pre-K alone can cover only a portion of any given family’s child care needs. Child care is a labor-intensive industry that relies on dedicated staff like Jessica, but too frequently pays them substandard wages. At the same time, most parents are already paying as much as they can—and sometimes more than that—to provide good care for their children so that they can work or go to school. In addition, many parents can’t find good care that’s convenient to their home or work. Public solutions are necessary so that parents like Jessica can afford high-quality care options, and so she and her colleagues working in the child care industry can afford to make ends meet, and get ahead. Public investments in high-quality, affordable child care also yield greater economic, gender, and racial equality, improved child development and family well-being, and the creation of good jobs that help the economy thrive.

To date, child care policy in the United States has focused on providing financial assistance to a small fraction of working families with low wages, providing a small tax credit for those with higher incomes, and largely ignoring the low wages that early educators are paid.2 These policies have been inadequate to meet the growing need for high-quality child care options that don’t break the bank.

In recent years, members of Congress have stepped up to propose solutions. In 2017, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) first introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, which would ensure no family pays more than 7 percent of their annual income on child care, raise compensation levels for the child care workforce, increase high-quality child care options and hours, and expand preschool options. This June, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Debra Haaland (D-NM) introduced the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act, which is similar to the Child Care for Working Families Act and would extend child care assistance to most families, regardless of income.

There has also been some short-term progress: Congress passed the largest-ever funding increase for child care in 2018, with a two-year, $5 billion investment, including $2.4 billion annually for the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the largest federal child care program providing financial assistance to low-income families. This new funding has allowed states to increase provider payments and serve more families, but it doesn’t begin to make up for the decades of under-funding that has left the CCDBG serving just one in six eligible families.

While there is reason for optimism that some progressive new child care legislation at the federal level is on its way, American families and early educators can’t afford to wait for their needs to be met. It’s time for state policymakers to lead the way, by innovating with bold solutions that benefit the families in their states—and making their states a testing ground and model for federal policy in the process.

American families and early educators can’t afford to wait for their needs to be met. It’s time for state policymakers to lead the way, by innovating with bold solutions that benefit the families in their states—and making their states a testing ground and model for federal policy in the process.

State policy efforts are key in this fight for families’ well-being, because federal introduction of a bill is only the first step of a much longer process. Ambitious change takes time, and while momentum builds at the federal level, states may be able to make progress faster. In addition, there’s ample evidence that policy in the states can pave the way for federal legislation in the same vein—and often in a very direct way. For example, Massachusetts’ health care policy was a precursor to the Affordable Care Act, informing the federal version of the policy and helping its federal-level proponents make the case for it. While it didn’t stop the opposition from fighting against the policy, it did help earnest policymakers create an effective law and make an evidence-based case that it works. Similarly, the eight states and Washington, D.C. that have passed paid family and medical leave laws are serving today as helpful models for federal paid leave legislation—the FAMILY Act. Time and again, state lessons help strengthen federal versions of similar legislation. Thus, state leaders who prioritize universal child care and early education models will not only be serving their own constituents in immensely valuable ways, but also creating a legacy that sets important precedent for the laws of the nation as a whole.

Historically, state progress on child care policy has been measured by improvements (or cuts) made to federally-funded CCDBG programs, increases to state level child care and dependent tax credits (CCDTC), and advances in the quality and accessibility of pre-K programs. These programs are hugely important to the families who benefit from them and contribute to the greater goals of equity, opportunity, and valuing children and families. Years of underinvestment lead, for example, to the underperformance of federal CCDBG programs discussed above. To make affordable, quality child care a reality for all families that need it, these programs need to be significantly expanded to reach more families, and funded to support quality, including livable wages.

Without a public investment to create fairness, the economic landscape of early childhood programs will only continue to exacerbate inequality.

Today, we are in a moment of opportunity to think even bigger: the national conversation about the issue has been changing, sparked both by bold federal bills and presidential candidates prioritizing child care. Now is the time to raise the bar. The need for bold state solutions that guarantee good, publicly funded child care options to all families grows every year. Early childhood investments have the potential to reduce inequality and give all children the opportunity to start school on equal footing. However, the current system means that children can attend only the programs that their parents can afford. As a result, low-income children are less likely to be in licensed child care, let alone a quality program. Without a public investment to create fairness, the economic landscape of early childhood programs will only continue to exacerbate inequality. Access to affordable and quality child care is most pressing for families with fewer resources. Due to longstanding structural racism that impacts employment, wages, and wealth, families of color often have fewer resources with which to purchase child care. In fact, African American and Latinx parents report that it is a particular challenge to find quality, affordable care in their communities.3 Comprehensive public solutions that prioritize allocating resources to those most in need are a must.

In their 2018 campaigns, a number of the country’s recently elected governors spoke in bold and broad terms about their commitment to improving and expanding child care.4 Many governors also raised the profile of child care and early education this year, prioritizing it in their early addresses5 and collectively proposing nearly $3 billion in new funding for child care and early education,6 while legislators in multiple states introduced visionary bills.7 Ultimately, the legislative progress this year, to date, was mostly foundational, setting the stage for future steps.

As most state legislative sessions have concluded for the year, it’s a good time to assess state progress on child care and early education in 2019, and to design our next steps, assessing how best to move forward from here. This report is meant to act as a blueprint for state advocates and policymakers to consider how to build on the foundation laid in the first half of 2019, and in previous years. First, we identify the six key priorities that any truly impactful child care policy must take into account; second, we discuss three aspects of policy design that, if applied, will help ensure the full implementation of the principles; and third, we assess several existing state policy models, discerning what we can borrow from them and how we can build and improve on them. The report also includes a list of resources for more information and future research.

States can make a world of difference when they make bold progress on child care and early education. Our hope is that this report will prove useful for those with a shared commitment to the well-being and security of American families.

Six Priorities for State Child Care Reform

Quality, accessible child care for all is a complex and multifaceted endeavor, and many may feel daunted when considering how to design policy that’s up to the challenge. To help, we’ve identified six priorities that, if responded to equally and fully by policymakers, will all but ensure that their policies are robust and impactful.

Bold child care and early education policy must include these six priorities:

  1. Guarantee affordable child care for every family.
  2. Provide diverse, inclusive options.
  3. Value early educators with fair wages, benefits, and an opportunity to join a union.
  4. Invest in high-quality care options.
  5. Ensure all stakeholders have a voice.
  6. Guarantee public financing that expands with need.

Priority 1: Guarantee Affordable Child Care for Every Family:

Child care and early education policies should include sufficient public funding to make child care affordable for all families, first and foremost for families struggling to make ends meet, and those who report it the most challenging to find affordable, high-quality care—particularly black and brown women.

Many parents find themselves in a conundrum: they need child care in order to work, but the price of those care services consumes a large chunk of their pay. For example, to afford the average annual cost of a child care center, a married couple earning median income in California—the least affordable state—would have to spend nearly 19 percent of their income for center-based care for an infant, and a single parent with median earnings would have to pay more than 60 percent of her income.8 With two children (an infant and a toddler in center-based care), the married couple would spend 30 percent of their income and the single parent would pay their entire salary on child care.9 Child care costs squeeze family budgets beyond the working class too, with even many middle-class families struggling to afford quality child care. In some states, child care costs more than state public college tuition and fees or median rent.10 Thus, states should include all families in child care reform proposals, while allocating the most assistance to those who need it most. A proposal advanced in Washington, D.C. has come the closest to articulating this vision: if funded, it would create a sliding scale that delivers financial assistance in accordance with each family’s needs.11

No matter their design, child care policies should provide financial assistance that limits the amount a household pays in child care expenses to no more than 7 percent of household income, regardless of the number of children in the family who need child care. This figure reflects the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition for affordable child care.12 If a sliding scale model is used, it should differentiate the proportion of income a family pays, with low-income families receiving free child care and higher income families contributing up to 7 percent.

Priority 2: Provide Diverse, Inclusive Options:

Parents should have a range of high-quality child care, early education, afterschool, and summer programs to choose from, with those options beginning their coverage with infancy and continuing until children reach age 13, or 18 for children with disabilities. Publicly funded options should serve the diverse needs of families, including culturally competent care options, dual language learning, care that is inclusive of children and family members with disabilities, home-based care, and care during non-standard hours that is available when and where families need it (weekends, after school, nights, when job schedules change, and in areas that are currently child care deserts). Investing in family child care networks or hubs can provide important resources to support home-based providers and facilitate networking among these providers who might otherwise be isolated from one another.

Provide Options with Both Temporal and Geographical Flexibility, Including for Nights and Weekends and in Multiple, Varied Settings

State policy proposals should ensure that parents can find good care options whenever they need them, including during evenings, nights, and weekends, when many parents are working or going to school. Parents should have a choice of care in a center, a family child care provider, or family, friend, and neighbor care. Policymakers should create flexible financial assistance options that provide extra incentives to providers willing to provide care during evening hours and weekends to help expand the availability of high-quality options. This may include higher payments for care during the weekends and evenings, with consideration for appropriate quality, health, and safety standards during these hours. In addition, states should map supply and demand for night and weekend child care and work with child care providers to address the gap.

Increase Options for Parents by Addressing Child Care Deserts

Most child care providers operate on parent fees, especially in the absence of meaningful public funding for child care. Thus, licensed child care can be scarce in low-income neighborhoods, where parents cannot afford the cost of a regulated child care program, whose requirements vary state by state and often include specific staff–child ratios, building safety measures, and training for the adults providing care.13 It’s not surprising, then, that half of Americans live in a child care desert, where need outstrips the supply of licensed child care.

For many parents, the location of their child care is a critical factor when it comes to finding an arrangement that will work for their commute and schedule. While many parents across the United States experience difficulty finding child care, the child care search can be especially pronounced in child care deserts. Parents may seek out unlicensed child care, patch together child care through family and friends, reduce their hours, or leave the workforce altogether. These choices can have serious consequences for families, especially if they result in a loss of family income. Parents need access to a range of child care options, including home-based options, so they can select a provider that best meets their families’ needs.

Child care policy must examine ways to increase the supply of safe, high-quality child care options. This includes carving out dedicated capital resources to build supply in child care deserts by renovating and constructing programs, investing in current providers to improve quality and expand capacity, and licensing family child care homes.

Provide Great Options for Infants and Toddlers

Children younger than 3 years old—infants and toddlers—require different types of care than do older children. Parents should be able to take paid leave in the first months of an infant’s life, but today the majority do not have that option. States should follow the lead of California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. and enact paid family and medical leave policies that ensure parents can take time to care in the earliest months of their children’s lives.14 Not only is paid leave crucial for parents and babies for the bonding, health, and well-being of families, but it also addresses some of the need for costly infant care.

We must recognize, however, that even with paid leave, many families will still need to access infant and toddler child care. States should also do the work to understand the true cost of providing high-quality care to infants and toddlers and provide additional supports to increase the supply of such care. The cost to provide high-quality infant and toddler child care is more expensive than for older children because of the need to maintain low adult-to-child ratios and small group sizes when caring for babies. States should ensure that public subsidies reflect this higher cost, should support the use of high-quality home-based care options, and invest in the teachers caring for our youngest children by giving them higher compensation than they currently receive.15

In Georgia, the Department of Early Care and Learning is making some incremental progress toward more funding for infant and toddler child care. The state announced that it will move 10,000 infant child care slots to a grant-funded model—meaning the child care provider will receive funding on an annual basis—and pay child care providers 35 percent above the state’s base payment rates.16 In addition, the California’s Blue Ribbon Commission, for example, recommends that policymakers: “Develop guidelines and provide incentives to licensed family child care homes who wish to specialize in care of infants and toddlers by establishing a specialized reimbursement rate for those with demonstrated experience and specialized training.”17

Expand Coverage for School-Age Children

Families’ need for child care doesn’t end when children start school. In fact, there’s a big disconnect between most school operating schedules and parents’ work schedules. In addition to afterschool and summer child care, parents often need child care when schools are closed for breaks or professional development days. When families struggle to find and afford child care outside of the school day, children may lose out on learning opportunities, such as homework help or science, technology, engineering, arts, or math enrichment programs, and parents may feel the financial pressure. Families report spending $3,000 on summer child care each year for two children—which represents 20 percent of their income over the summer. And this only covers about five weeks of child care during that part of the year.18

Child care plans must address child care for children up to age 13, and up to age 18 for children with disabilities. States should consider local school districts’ operating schedules in plans for after school, summer, and care during other school closings. States should ensure that child care during non-school hours is inclusive of children with disabilities in terms of the physical space, enrichment activities, and appropriate staffing.

Ensure Programs Are Inclusive of Families with Disabilities

Over 1 million young children in the United States have a disability, and one in four American adults have a disability. That means that in any community, there are a significant number of families that include someone with a disability, and child care programs need to be prepared to meet their needs. In addition to ensuring that buildings are physically accessible, the program content—including curricula, family engagement and communication, and staff training—must also be designed to include children and families with disabilities, and for all disabilities. There are many community-based organizations that can assist with this, including centers for independent living, deaf and hard of hearing agencies, and parent training and information centers;19 child care programs should maintain a list of local resources.

States should include policies that require child care programs to be accessible to children and parents with disabilities, including providing funds for specialized staff trainings for both early educators and program administrators to support them in creating inclusive programs. They should consider providing higher child care subsidies for children with disabilities to meet specialized needs. In addition, it is important that state processes for developing child care policy, as well as local processes, such as those overseen by parent advisory boards or advisory groups, include people with disabilities who can provide input on inclusive policies and procedures. Finally, the child care search can be particularly difficult for parents who have a disability themselves and/or child with a disability. State policies should also support families in locating a child care provider that best meets their needs.

Priority 3: Value Early Educators with Fair Wages, Benefits, and an Opportunity to Join a Union

Quality early education is contingent on an effective and highly qualified workforce whose every member has the tools they need to support families and prepare children for success in school. In fact, the best indicator of a high-quality early childhood setting is the interaction between the child and the adult in the child care setting.20 Currently, early educators earn just $11 on average and few have access to benefits like health insurance and paid time off. As a result, the quality available in child care is undermined by high turnover rates and poor working conditions.21

Early educators should be valued, treated with respect and dignity, and ensured the right to join a professional organization that builds worker power, like a union.

Ensuring that early educators can join a union can boost wages and benefits, which these workers sorely need nearly across the board. Early educators should be valued, treated with respect and dignity, and ensured the right to join a professional organization that builds worker power, like a union. They should also be able to have easy, and affordable, access to quality job training, and be fairly compensated for the work they do—which, in the sheer diversity of its clientele, is among the most complex and difficult occupations out there. Furthermore, there should be pay equity across subsectors of education: early educators who have degrees, credentials, and/or demonstrated competency levels equivalent with those possessed by K–12 teachers should be compensated at the same level as those teachers are.

States must ensure that the people who care for and educate our children are able to do their work with respect and dignity, and that they have what they need to take care of their own families.

Improve Compensation for Early Educators

Adequate compensation for early educators—in terms of wages and benefits—is a crucial component of any high-quality program. Therefore investing in the workforce must be part of any good child care reform plan: we must ensure that child care jobs are good jobs. Bills in Washington State, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. this year specifically addressed the importance of self-sufficiency wages for early educators. In Massachusetts, for example, proposed legislation calls for “appropriate professional development and compensation for early education and care providers.”22 In Washington, D.C., the new law that was signed in 2018, but has yet to be fully implemented, includes a requirement that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) develop a competitive compensation/salary scale for lead teachers and teacher’s assistants with a “cost modeling analysis” to help establish reimbursement rates that reflect the competitive salary scale.23 Any good policy will include compensation, scholarships, and financial support with any additional educational requirements.

In Washington State, the child care collaborative task force is required to make recommendations related to access to quality care to the governor and legislature. Among the issues on which it will deliberate are a number of specifications related to the workforce, including:

  • pay scale changes to achieve pay parity with K–12 teachers;
  • preserving and increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the workforce;
  • ensuring that the salary floor is adequate to support recruitment and retention of a qualified workforce;
  • ensuring that salaries for providers match those of specified early learning professional job categories;
  • incentivizing advancements in higher education credentials and equivalencies, training, and years of experience;
  • considering credential equivalencies;
  • considering a provider’s years of experience in the field and at their current site;
  • differentiating subsidy rates by region; and
  • providing additional compensation to providers serving specific populations, including lower-income families or those with additional linguistic or cultural competency needs.

California’s Blue Ribbon Commission recommended that policymakers ensure salary parity with K–3 educators for those with comparable education and experience, including offering early educators competitive benefit packages that cover health, dental, vision, twenty days paid time off annually, and retirement contribution.24 These are all excellent examples that other states can use when designing their own fair compensation models.

Opportunity to Join a Union or Other Professional Organization

State early education and child care policies should give early educators the opportunity to join a union or professional organization that builds worker power—in all settings, including center-based care and family child care homes. Workers who are members of a union have higher wages and improved working conditions, both of which make it easier for them to sustain their families.25 In fact, unions have won tens of millions of dollars in new funding for workforce professional development, higher pay, and expanded access to child care for families. State policies should ensure the opportunity to organize and bargain both through traditional means and innovative ones that ensure early educators can bargain over wages, workers’ rights, and community benefits, while ensuring that the floor for all workers reflects the true value of their work.

Over the last couple of decades, hundreds of thousands of early educators have joined unions. Since 2005, family child care providers in at least sixteen states won the right to negotiate with states for better compensation and working conditions. This year, legislation has been introduced and has strong support in California that would allow self-employed child care providers and family, friend, and neighbor providers, who are receiving CCDBG subsidies for the families they serve, to be considered employees of the state for purposes of collective bargaining, so they can bargain with the state over wages and benefits.26

Elected officials and candidates must use their executive, regulatory, and legislative authority to give child care providers the opportunity to join a professional organization that builds worker power like a union, no matter where they work.

Priority 4: Invest in High-Quality Child Care Options

Any meaningful child care policy must include an investment in quality improvement. High-quality care depends on investments in the workforce, training, and other forms of support for caregivers, educators, and families that take care of the whole child and help all children thrive.

Many parents have limited child care options, especially families living paycheck to paycheck that are constrained by cost and location. The fact that child care providers rely almost exclusively on parent payments means that low-income children are less likely to have quality child care in their neighborhood, because low-income families tend to be unable to meet the costs of high-quality care. When families do receive publicly funded financial assistance to pay for child care, the rates of that assistance are generally well below the actual cost of providing high-quality child care and supporting the wages early educators need and deserve. As a result, providers often make the financial decision not to accept subsidies, further exacerbating the child care availability problem.

Policies can support more options for parents by paying the actual cost of operating a high-quality program, including the costs of increasing compensation, as noted above. Many states have undergone studies to determine the cost of high-quality child care using the quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), a tiered rating system based on a rubric created to assess quality. States use QRIS to articulate progressively higher standards of quality and rates programs for the public.27 Using this method, states can determine the cost of providing child care for family child care homes and child care centers at different levels of quality and calibrate payment rates accordingly.

Another way that states can support the creation and development of high-quality care programs is to provide dedicated resources for licensing, professional development, and other improvement measures over time. Funding to achieve higher levels of quality must precede any requirements or expectations that programs achieve these standards, and an appropriate timeline that recognizes the intense effort that quality improvement requires—efforts which include activities like seeking additional training and credentials, designing and implementing improved curricula, and renovating space—must be applied from the outset. In the past, efforts to create a financial incentive to improve quality have inadvertently resulted in well-resourced programs receiving even more funding while struggling programs that serve low-income children, black and brown children, areas with a high number of immigrants, and/or high levels of language diversity receive comparatively less. To counter this trend, states should consider targeting programs or neighborhoods with a higher concentration of low-income children or high levels of language diversity to build the supply of quality child care in underserved areas.

Priority 5: Ensure All Stakeholders Have a Voice

All stakeholders—parents, early educators, and other providers—should have a real voice and meaningful role in shaping the child care and early education system, as well as a role in all ongoing decision-making.

A number of states have created task forces, working groups, commissions, and other forms of infrastructure dedicated to researching and making recommendations about child care and early education policy. It’s important that these groups include the many stakeholders involved, including (but not limited to): child care providers; parents from all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds; early educators; unions; and government agencies. For example, in Washington State, the child care access working group created by legislation earlier this year includes family child care providers, center-based child care providers, a union representative, a trade association representing child care centers, a parent representative, an early learning advocacy organization, an early learning policy expert, government agencies, tribal leaders, a representative of the business community, and legislators.28 These structures for stakeholder engagement should continue even after policies are in place to monitor and assist with successful implementation.

Priority 6: Guarantee Public Financing that Expands with Need

States must provide public financing that is stable and reliable from year to year, is calibrated to make care affordable for all eligible families, and supports providers with the funds necessary to deliver high-quality child care.

Because state budgets must be balanced, any realistic universal child care proposal must include a clear plan to pay for it—and good child care policies cost a lot of money. However, the cost of not investing in child care and early education is ultimately greater. States and families themselves are already paying for child care through lost wages and forgone economic growth. A recent study estimated that the United States loses $57 billion each year in economic productivity because parents lack affordable, quality child care options.29 Additional studies found that $8.3 billion in wages are lost every year as a result of the lack of affordable child care,30 and U.S. businesses lose approximately $4.4 billion annually due to employee absenteeism as a result of child care breakdowns.31 When public funding is available for child care, both labor force participation and productivity increase. This, and the clear benefits of the investment for children, families, and early educators, make it worth prioritization. In order to be responsive to all of the above, it might make sense to implement a plan incrementally, making continuous progress toward the ultimate goal while distributing the cost over time.

In addition to incremental application, state policymakers should consider a range of options for funding child care. They can use funding from their general fund/general revenues; they can also look at progressive revenue raisers, like taxes on personal income in excess of $1 million for states with income taxes; inheritance; wealth or estate taxes; carbon taxes; or closing corporate loopholes.32 Some other ideas include excise taxes and low-wage employer fees, through which low-wage employers would be required to pay a fee based on the number of their employees who rely on means-tested public benefits (e.g., Medicaid and SNAP). Some or all of these revenues would be dedicated to increasing funding that expands access to child care and/or compensation for early educators.

Some cities and counties have found ways to address the costs that states could also apply. In 2016, preschool ballot initiatives were passed in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. In Cincinnati, voters agreed to increase property taxes to pay for the preschool initiative, and in Dayton they increased income taxes by one-quarter of a percentage point.33 Municipalities have also demonstrated how phasing in changes over time helps to gradually increase costs. They have also found creative ways to pay. For example, New York City rolled out universal pre-K for 4-year-olds all at once, but later rolled out universal pre-K for 3-year-olds more slowly, starting out in the poorest communities in the city.34 In 2014, while promoting these programs, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a dedicated tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers, increasing the tax rate on income in excess of $500,000 a year from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent. Ultimately, the State of New York included the funding for the program in its budget instead;35 but such an option nonetheless remains available to other municipalities, and to states, as well. Finding the right revenue source can be challenging, but adequate funding is an essential ingredient to enacting bold child care reform; and, in any case, the cost of not providing such funding is greater.

Where Priorities Meet Policy: Key Frameworks and Considerations

We’ve now established the priorities that all child care reform must apply to its policy design in order to reach every family that needs it. In what follows, we identify three aspects of policy design that will help ensure the full implementation of the principles described above: using one flexible policy for financial assistance provision; providing a continuum of care; and basing funding dispersal on subsidies and not on tax credits.

One Policy with the Flexibility to Address Individual Families’ Needs

States should use a single policy for providing families with financial assistance, regardless of the family’s income level. Currently no state offers the same type of plan to every family: instead, the provision systems are split, with, for instance, subsidies being provided for the lowest-income families and tax credits for those with higher incomes. Such multi-pronged approaches fail the principles outlined above on the basis of equity. A single system is necessary to ensure fairness: not all financial provision methods work as quickly as others, or are as easy to navigate as others (see below for further discussion). The best way to avoid the disparity created by differing methods is not to use differing methods at all.

A single system is necessary to ensure fairness: not all financial provision methods work as quickly as others, or are as easy to navigate as others.

What’s needed is one child care and early education system that provides real-time help on a regular basis, so that families can afford to pay for care when the bill comes due. Such a system should include a sliding scale so that the families who need the most help receive it. In addition, when everyone has a stake in the same program, they will fight to maintain the program and to ensure it’s of the highest quality. Families at all but the highest income levels are struggling to pay for child care; but just because some families are struggling less than others doesn’t mean that they should be offered an entirely different system of financial assistance provision: they should simply receive comparatively less. When all communities are invested in ensuring that a program is high-quality, their collective advocacy will help ensure that everyone benefits.

A Continuum of Care

Families need paid family and medical leave and pre-K as part of the larger continuum of care, and need them working in tandem and simultaneously, buttressing and supporting each other. Once paid parental leave ends, great child care options are critical. Families who use pre-K programs still need care when school is closed, but work is not. Most parents of school-age children have a need for care during out-of-school times. Those who work outside weekday daytime hours need evening and weekend care. Any investment in one part of the continuum—paid leave, child care, or pre-K—should be a down payment on the other parts. None are enough on their own, and all are part of the system of good child care and early education policy.36 Furthermore, prioritizing one aspect over another—for example, expanding pre-K without providing adequate out-of-school care options at high-quality providers—can actually create sustainability challenges for child care providers and create other inequities in the system. No one piece is the solution: all must be advanced together.

Subsidies over Tax Credits

The provision of financial assistance for child care, as mentioned above, typically comes down to the use of subsidies, tax credits, or some combination of the two (with different applications to different income brackets). While other methods of assistance provision are possible, among the two predominant approaches, subsidies are a more inclusive policy solution than tax credits (and, as discussed above, a single solution is stronger than a bifurcated one that creates different child care assistance programs for different families based on their income). Tax credits can be designed to be more effective and comprehensive, but they have traditionally been used to allow middle- and upper-class families to receive a tax break once a year based on the amount they paid for child care over the previous year. They do not work for families who cannot afford to pay for care in the first place, since tax credits only come to taxpayers when they file their taxes at the end of the year. Families can’t afford to pay for child care up front and then wait up to a year to get their credit. In an equitable, single-model system, tax credits are not an appropriate method.

In addition, low-income working families often have little or no tax liability, so if the tax credit is non-refundable they will see little or no benefit. Often tax credits are not substantial enough to make any significant dent in child care costs, especially for lower-income families. This unalleviated cost then spreads throughout the child care system, keeping educator pay low and impeding the creation and development of high-quality programs in substantial numbers.

Models for State Policymaking

While there aren’t many existing policies that meet the principles for bold child care reform discussed above, there are a few: two federal policies, and a handful of state- and municipal-level policies. In what follows, we describe the approaches that these policies respectively take, and discuss how they measure up against the rubric that our reform principles create.

Two Federal Models

The exemplary federal bill—the Child Care for Working Families Act37—was initially introduced in 2017 by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA). The bill outlines a comprehensive solution for child care by creating a sliding scale that limits child care payments to 7 percent of a family’s income, thereby making it affordable for all families. The bill would also improve quality options for families, including expanding the number of child care options that meet the needs of those working schedules that fall outside of a 9-to-5 weekday schedule. Early educators—who do the important work of preparing young children for a lifetime of learning and supporting the economy so that parents can work—would be guaranteed a living wage, and pay comparable to K–12 teachers wherever qualifications are similar.

More recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) introduced the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act.38 This bill reinforces many of the same principles outlined in the Child Care for Working Families Act, but includes a universal plan to reach all children, regardless of income. Both bills are good models for state policymakers to consider when developing their own proposals because they address affordability and flexibility for families while investing in quality care and quality jobs. Both proposals value flexibility, diversity, inclusion, and ensuring there are opportunities to improve the quality of care.39

State and Local Models: Establishing Policy Frameworks

In addition, recommendations, proposals, task forces, and laws advanced in California, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington State, and Washington, D.C. provide compelling models for policy reforms and foundations from which to create policy reforms.

None of these policy reform models have been fully funded or implemented; but their policy designs are sound references nonetheless.


In April, 2019, the California Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education released its final report. The group of diverse stakeholders made recommendations for “an early learning system that works for children, families and providers.” The commission imagined a long-term vision, including universal access to early education for every family with a focus first on children in low-income families. At the same time, California’s budget included, among other policies, funding to make child care and preschool affordable for more than 20,000 additional children, as well as for two additional weeks of paid family leave to care for newborns.40 These budget increases are a start, but future investments must include a greater focus on raising compensation for the child care workforce41 and the other priorities listed in the commission’s report.

New Mexico

New Mexico has established a new cabinet-level department dedicated to programs for children from birth to five, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department. The department will have oversight over child care assistance, pre-kindergarten, and home-visiting programs and aims to improve coordination and raise standards for these services.42 In creating a department solely focused on early childhood programs, New Mexico has signaled that comprehensive services for children from birth to five is a priority. Upon signing the bill into law, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said: “This department is an investment in our children, and thus in our shared future. It is an important step forward. We have many more steps to take, and I will continue to lead the push.”43

New York State and New York City

In New York State, at the end of 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a Child Care Availability Task Force to develop innovative solutions that will improve access to high-quality, affordable child care in New York. It represents all of the key stakeholders, including providers, advocates, business, unions, and government. New York, like many states, has an underfunded child care subsidy system with low provider payment rates. The task force is charged with addressing the shortcomings in the current system and examining child care affordability, the availability of care during nights and weekends, and potential legal changes that can be made to make it easier for parents to access care, among other issues. It will also make recommendations. The task force’s final report is due at the end of 2020.44

In addition, in May of this year, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer proposed NYC Under 3.45 This comprehensive proposal addresses affordability, availability, and quality of care, including investing in the child care workforce. It includes a plan to sustainably pay for these reforms as well. This is intended to complement the city’s investment in universal pre-K. Like the federal proposals, the comptroller’s proposal includes financial assistance for families that relies on an income-based sliding scale. While the federal proposals rely on a cap of no more than 7 percent of income, based on the federal affordability standard, the comptroller uses a slightly different cap: 12 percent of income for families with incomes of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (about $100,000/year). The proposal also includes a capital commitment to increase supply, and investments in higher compensation with a commitment to living wages for early educators.46


The state of Oregon has established a Task Force on Access to Quality Affordable Child Care. The task force would develop recommendations to the legislative assembly to improve access to and the affordability of child care by soliciting input from underserved populations, researching how child care subsidies are currently being used (and how they have worked in the past), and studying state and federally funded child care and early learning programs. The study is due no later than December 31, 2020.47

Washington State

This past May also saw Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State signing into law the Washington Childcare Access Now (CAN) Act.48 The CAN Act is groundbreaking as a vision for state-level child care reform because it simultaneously addresses child care affordability, quality, and workforce compensation. The act establishes a child care collaborative task force to develop a plan to make affordable, quality child care, including an investment in the workforce, a reality for all Washington families. It brings together diverse stakeholders to help develop solutions.

Washington, D.C.

As mentioned earlier, in Washington, D.C., the Birth-to-Three For All D.C Act was signed into law in 2018, but has yet to be fully funded or implemented. The law boosts child care subsidies to both expand access to families and increase the wages of child care workers. It targets the most generous assistance to families who need it the most, but provides support to everyone.49

A Strong Foundation from Which to Grow

The new task forces, department (in New Mexico), commissions, and recommendations discussed above set a strong foundation from which to grow. Establishing an inclusive, resourced stakeholder process to make recommendations, funding, and key principles devoted to universal child care will allow states to build bold new systems. Advocates and legislators must work together to continue this progress. At the same time, national advocates, members of Congress, and presidential candidates will continue to build momentum for national child care reform. These parallel efforts are all key to establishing lasting change for children and families.



The authors wish to thank Simon Workman from Center for American Progress, Cathy Sarri from the Service Employees International Union, Lauren Hipp and Nina Perez from MomsRising, Nina Dastur from Community Change, Catherine White and Karen Schulman from the National Women’s Law Center, Netsy Firestein from the Early Care and Education Organizing Network, and Mimi Aledo-Sandoval from the Alliance for Early Success for providing feedback on previous drafts of this report.

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


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  2. Note that throughout this report we refer to the people who work in child care as “early educators.” We use that term broadly, in order to include all those who are paid to provide care for children.
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