Universal Pre-K: A Parent’s Perspective


Becoming a parent changes an individual fundamentally. I was interested in childcare policy before becoming a parent, but now when I think about childcare policy, I think about what is going to be best for my smiling one-year-old twin girls. One of the major issues in childcare policy is the cost of childcare and an often-proposed remedy is government-provided Universal Pre-K. Under a Universal Pre-K program, all children can attend preschool and eliminate a year or two of childcare costs that parents are currently paying. Yet, the political and financial constraints of states make taking on the cost burden largely unrealistic.

The cost of childcare is a major concern for all but the wealthiest of parents. In 2006, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) indicated an average cost between $3,000 and $13,000 per year for childcare (Palley and Shdaimah, 2011). Personal experience over the last year (along with market evidence) suggests that the price has risen. American University’s Child Development Center costs $1,365 a month for their services, which is a discount compared to what other community members pay. This amounts to over $16,000 a year per child. Sending two children to the Child Development Center would cost roughly $32,000 a year. If an individual’s net pay is about two-thirds of their gross pay, then they would need a job paying more than $53,000 in order to afford childcare. This does not include rent or mortgage, car payments, or medical expenses.

A common objection to any sort of state-sponsored childcare, including Universal Pre-K, is that keeping the children at home with the family is better. The expectation is that a mother or father has a network of people within their family or friends that can assist with raising and caring for their child. The truth is many parents don’t have that kind of support. Having family or friends watch a child for little or no cost is a wonderful thing, but plenty of families still need more extensive childcare and must pay for it.

Universal Pre-K, providing high-quality preschool to every child, is one of the policy solutions floating around to help solve some of these problems for parents while helping students prepare for elementary schools. As the race to the White House in 2016 ramps up, the Democratic contenders are likely to bring up this issue. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton support Universal Pre-K. Clinton has supported this issue previously in Arkansas, as First Lady, and as a Senator in New York. In June 2015, while campaigning in New Hampshire, Clinton introduced her plan for Universal Pre-K, ambitiously planning to make preschool available to all four-year-olds over a 10 year period. She plans to build on President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal for full-day preschool that was introduced in 2013 but didn’t advance through Congress. She particularly pointed to a lack of funds in Early Head Start and Early Head Start Child Care Partnership grant program and indicated that she would double the investment. These proposals seem geared to relieve the burden of paying for childcare for low-income families. Clinton also said she would offer parents a tax cut for the middle class to help pay for quality childcare.

Senator Sanders also supports this issue; interestingly, he has it listed at least twice on his website, both as a women’s rights issue and as an income inequality issue. Since Sanders frames the issue as an income inequality issue and Clinton’s initial proposals are geared towards low-income children, it seems likely that the Democratic candidates will focus on low-income students through programs like Early Head Start and will consider Universal Pre-K a secondary policy goal.

Relieving parents of the burden of paying for child care while increasing educational opportunities for kids is hard to oppose. The key question given how tight budgets are and how impossible it is to raise taxes is how would these programs and policies be funded? A 2014 piece in The Atlantic poses this very question, and suggests rather than trying to fund preschool for all children, the focus should be on low-income students who are likely to benefit the most from preschool. The article points out that while the long-term benefits are unclear, there are short-term benefits that suggest that it helps to close the achievement gap.

As a parent, I truly believe every child, no matter a parent’s income, should have access to high-quality pre-school and/or other child care options that are convenient for parents. With that, other issues that arise in childcare that restrict access such as waiting lists, expensive application fees or expensive monthly fees also need to be addressed, especially in the policy decision-making process. As a policy analyst, I understand that there are limited funds. Thus, it is logical to focus on children who may benefit the most from preschool such as low-income children.

Many families across the U.S. cannot afford to spend $32,000 a year on daycare. Parents who may have incomes that Sanders and Clinton would consider higher than middle-class are probably stretching every dollar or going into debt to make sure their children have the best childcare services they can find. For some, that means working two jobs and spending less time with their kids. For others, it means choosing not to work and losing ground in one’s career, as well as adding financial pressure on the working parent. It also means compromising on the quality of care for your child and leaving them in a place or with individuals that compromise their chance to succeed academically, or generally in life. This is the most painful truth for any parent.

If policymakers pursue options such as ratings for childcare centers and providing incentives for additional childcare workers, which will lower costs and increase access, a broader spectrum of parents and families will benefit.

Image source: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.

Topics: Childcare