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Reimagining Early Education

Deseret News

June 15, 2024

For years, conservatives have dropped the ball on early childhood education policy, almost entirely ceding the playing field to the left. This has led to programs that lack guidance from some important conservative intuitions, like fiscal restraint, the centrality of family and the power of markets.

Early childhood education is a crucial kitchen-table issue for families and communities. Millions of children are raised by single parents, by families in which both parents have to work and in homes where parents shoulder all manner of other challenges. Meanwhile, more parents look outside the home to aid with socialization, educational opportunities or preparation for schooling for their children. While conservatives might believe that early childhood education outside of the home is an inferior option, keeping children home to be nurtured and taught is simply not a feasible option for many American families.

When conservatives have sought to offer an early childhood education agenda of their own, it has mostly started (and ended) with two time-tested responses: deregulation and tax cuts.

Now, cutting red tape and taxes are reasonable places to start. Government has burdened providers and early childhood educators with a thicket of regulations. Compliance with many of these rules and standards drives up costs and empowers interest groups without doing much to ensure quality, all of which makes it more difficult for families to find inexpensive or convenient options. Pruning all but the most essential regulations can reduce the cost and increase the flexibility of early childhood education, making it more affordable and more accessible for more families. And, to help families afford these options, conservatives tend to suggest cutting taxes. More money in paychecks and pockets means more money to pay for early childhood education.

In short, there’s value in emphasizing both deregulation and tax cuts; they’re sensible first steps. But they are only a beginning. Their shortcomings point to the need for a more robust agenda.

First, some important dimensions of early childhood education and child care can’t be deregulated away. For example, young children need close adult supervision, and that aspect of early childhood education will always be a labor-intensive process that can’t be deregulated away. Removing regulations can certainly help on the margins, but that strategy won’t fundamentally change anything unless we want artificial intelligence reading stories and robots monitoring playtime. Especially given the importance that all parents attach to safe and diligent supervision, we can’t deregulate our way out of that one. Free-market enthusiasts who hope we can are kidding themselves.

Similarly, tax cuts aren’t a sufficient solution. Many of the people most in need of early childhood care don’t pay that much in taxes. The bottom half of households in the United States pay an average federal tax rate of 3.4 percent, or about $626 per year.

Even assuming that every single dollar saved by cutting taxes was put toward early childhood education, the tax savings wouldn’t come close to covering the costs. More generally, the early childhood marketplace has been stymied by policies that limited flexibility for parents who want more convenient, reliable and satisfactory options.

We’d like to start with some grand disquisition on how to approach the education of young children, but we’re both too tired from raising young children to get into that right now. Parents are practical people, and the single most practical concern with early childhood education is cost.

As mentioned above, there are certain adult-to-child ratios that are tough to get around. Cost will always be a central concern. Conservatives need to help families afford early childhood care and education, but the government cannot simply subsidize an endlessly more expensive status quo. Cost control needs to be part of the agenda as well.

One key step in keeping costs down is preventing early childhood education from becoming incorporated into the K-12 system. Folding early childhood educators into the credentialing, unionization and compensation structure of primary and secondary teachers in New York City was a recipe for early childhood education to follow the cost model of K-12. The program created under former Mayor Bill de Blasio sends children to either public schools — which added new grades for four-year-olds and eventually three-year-olds — or to dedicated pre-K centers in the city. During the current administration of Mayor Eric Adams, the program has been plagued with problems including entities not getting paid, disparities between workers in public school and the independent centers, and a lack of participation among the poorest New York families.

A better alternative that could control costs and help parents afford them would be creating flexible-use spending accounts — similar to Education Savings Accounts established in about a dozen states for primary and secondary schooling — for parents to use on early childhood expenses. Both public and private dollars could conceivably flow into these accounts, which parents could use for preschool tuition, tutoring, therapies or a host of other eligible expenses. This would help families afford early childhood education and put in a cost-control mechanism by incentivizing them to seek less expensive options, leaving more for other potential purchases.

Early childhood education that’s near a parent’s place of employment is a huge boon. Parents of young children aren’t eager to put their kids on buses. They have to leave work for extended periods of time to pick up kids who are sick or have an incident. It’s a lot easier on parents if they don’t have to drive across town for morning drop-off or race out of work to make afternoon pickup. And, most parents would prefer to have their preschoolers on a schedule that reflects their work calendar rather than the local school district calendar.

These are all reasons to encourage more employers to sponsor early childhood education, either individually or through local consortia. Public policy can help by addressing redundant, intrusive or unnecessary dictates regarding facilities and staffing at employer-provided facilities. Government can make it easier for employers to offer early childhood education as a tax-exempt employee benefit. And it can support the creation of platforms that manage pre-K spending accounts, allowing both families and providers to log in and either pay for services or get paid for them.

While early childhood education can be a welcome respite for families and a crucial support for working parents and guardians, the goal should never be to supplant parents, compel reluctant parents to use these systems or get in the way of parent-child bonds. Parents have a unique and important role, and early childhood education should support it.

The most popular form of child care is also the most ancient: family and friends. People who spend their time worried about such things have developed fancy new names for it, like “Family, Friend, and Neighbor Care,” but the bottom line is that the largest number of children in America from birth to school age are cared for by “unlisted and unpaid” caregivers. Child care provided by extended family or close relations has virtues that even competent bureaucracies inevitably lack. Such a network of caregivers can provide love, wisdom and shared traditions that are qualitatively different from what kids get in even a terrific child care setting.

Conservatives should embrace these long-standing family child care systems by finding ways to make these arrangements eligible for support programs. They should also work with the networks of nonprofits and state actors that support families caring for their children within their or their close relations’ homes.

Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote: “Pluralist society is free society exactly in proportion to its ability to protect as large a domain as possible that is governed by the informal, spontaneous, custom-derived, and tradition-sanctioned habits of the mind rather than by the dictates, however rationalized, of government and judiciary.”

The push for transforming early childhood education into grades that get tacked on to public school systems is ultimately a push to replace the fruits of civil society with the measures and metrics of government. It entails ushering the littlest of children out of the home and community and into big, impersonal institutions. Despite whatever fantasies abide in the mind of Bill de Blasio, that’s not a good thing.

A robust network of early childhood education providers already exists. There is a rich mix of churches, synagogues, mosques, neighborhood providers and others in this space, working alongside schools and for-profit organizations. This is an asset that we should cultivate and build on. Any reforms should not displace these people and places but rather seek to complement and augment them.

This is only a brief sketch of what a robust conservative approach to early childhood education might encompass, but it should make the broad contours visible:

  • Work with families and civil society to support and augment what they are already doing.
  • Be thoughtful about how programs of support might encroach on the more informal arrangements that families use and love.
  • Give parents money to help pay for early childhood education, but structure it in ways that can prevent runaway cost growth.

The answer is about more than tax cuts and deregulation; it should also address the real challenges that parents and providers are facing right now. That strikes us as a prudent place to start.