Our Early Care and Education Agenda — Sen. Jeff Jackson
We’re rolling out our education platform and we’re starting with a dramatic expansion of early childhood education.
We’ve held town halls in all 100 counties, and what we’ve consistently heard from parents and educators is that early childhood education must — at long last — become a top priority.
The first years of a child’s life are the most critical period for their brain development — and the pandemic showed us that access to child care is essential to a parent’s ability to participate in the workforce.
That goes for my family, too. We’ve got three kids — with one in preschool right now — and having access to early childhood education for them has made an enormous difference for them and our family.
A truly effective early childhood education and care system in this country needs to be three things: high-quality, affordable, and accessible. Parents need to be able to find care for their young children, they need to be able to afford it, and they have to know for certain that it’s first-class.
And investing in early childhood care and education makes basic economic sense. A recent study showed that every $1 invested in early childhood care and education generated more than $7 in returns.
It’s time for America to invest in an early education system that truly works for all children, families, educators, and communities. That’s why today, we are releasing our Early Care and Education Agenda.
- Make child care affordable for all families with children from birth to age five. The Build Back Better plan contains $100 billion to help families ensure this through the Child Care Development Block Grant Program. This program will make early childhood care free for North Carolina families earning less than 1.5 times the median income (that’s roughly $80,000) and greatly reduce costs for most other families, covering about nine in 10 young children in the state — about 600,000 children per year.
- Provide universal, high-quality, free preschool for every 3 and 4 year old. Today, only about 30% of the 3 and 4 year-olds in North Carolina have access to publicly-funded preschool, and it costs families around $8,600 per year if they can’t access those programs. The Build Back Better plan framework will expand access to free preschool to more than 150,000 additional 3 and 4 year-olds per year in the state.
- Extend the Child Tax Credit. 15% of children in North Carolina live in poverty. To have an effective early childhood care system in this country, we need to provide support to families struggling to make ends meet. Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan provided families with young children $300 a month in refundable tax credits. In just one month, this program lifted three million children out of poverty, cutting the child poverty rate by a quarter nationwide. But this program expires next year. The Build Back Better plan would extend it another year. We should do better than that. A permanent extension of the tax credit would almost halve child poverty in North Carolina.
- Pay early childhood educators a living wage. The average early childhood educator in North Carolina makes around $20,500 a year, less than $10 an hour, and $6,000 a year below the federal poverty line. As a result, across the country there is an extreme shortage of qualified early childhood educators. Anyone who has had to care for small children knows that it’s an incredibly demanding job and worth so much more than poverty wages. To have a functioning early childhood education system, we need to start paying early childhood educators what they’re worth. And only by paying them what they’re worth can we ensure that we have enough folks working in this field so parents have access to enough high-quality options for their children. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a good start.
- Expand the supply of quality child care programs. Almost half of all North Carolinians live in a “child care desert” where there are few or no options for quality childcare. The current childcare market system is broken — parents pay the majority of the costs but still can’t afford the true cost of what it takes to provide high-quality care. As a result, there is little to no investment to develop or expand early childhood and preschool programs in low-resourced communities. And a lack of childcare options means more parents dropping out of the labor force so they can take care of their kids. Congress can change this. The supply of child care can be greatly expanded through small business loans, grants, tax credits and other incentives. The bipartisan Small Business Child Care Investment Act would make non-profit child care providers eligible to participate in federal loan programs through the Small Business Administration (SBA) — the same opportunity currently provided to for-profit child care providers. By taking steps like this, we can start expanding the supply of early childhood care and education options for families, ensuring access for all.
- Build a comprehensive early childcare system that is focused on quality and family choice. Our plan is about making sure that families have the resources, support, and information to choose whichever type of high-quality care is best for their kids — whether public, private, home-care, or Head Start programs. States need to ensure effective child care systems — that includes systems for measuring quality, enforceable standards for different types of care, pathways to licensing for staff, and technical assistance for providers. North Carolina already does a great job with this. The state rates early childcare providers on a 1 to 5 star scale. This easy-to-understand system helps families find the best childcare options for their kids. And it’s also been shown that providers who get a low rating one year usually make efforts to fix areas where they fell short and improve their ratings in subsequent years, improving the overall quality of providers statewide. Our system provides a great model that could be replicated nationwide.
- Finally institute a paid family leave policy. We called for this in our Hourly Workers Agenda, but it also fits here. We have to stop being the only developed nation on earth without a paid family leave policy. Only 8% of workers in the bottom quartile of earners — in other words, those who earn an average of $14/hour — have access to paid leave. Some of the most heart wrenching stories we’ve heard on the campaign trail have been about this issue. Single moms forced back to work days after giving birth. Final moments with loved ones missed. But it’s also about keeping families afloat. The financial repercussions of being forced to take even a week of unpaid leave can trigger all manner of collateral consequences, especially for a single-parent household that’s already close to the brink. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the benefits of paid family leave are much broader than you might expect. Providing new parents with paid time off to care for newborn or recently adopted children contributes to healthy development, improves maternal health, and enhances families’ economic security. Paid medical and caregiving leave lets workers care for themselves and loved ones when ill or injured, and reduces financial insecurity and stress during those times. Paid leave benefits businesses by improving retention and productivity and boosting labor force participation. This is not a radical idea. It has vast support — even among Republicans — and it’s long overdue.
If young children could advocate for themselves, we would have been doing all of these things years ago. The evidence is overwhelming — and it just makes sense on a basic level. Helping young children is good for them and good for all of us. When we allow so many young children to start school having never held a book, not knowing any of their colors, any of their letters, we’ve done them a grave injustice — and we’ve hurt our future prospects as a country.
These policies would transform our ability to help all of our children to reach their potential. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, we should all acknowledge that children deserve every chance to have a good, strong start in school, even if their ZIP code isn’t full of expensive homes. We can’t make good on our commitment to being a land of opportunity if we continue to ignore the effects of allowing so many children to go without these basic services — and once we implement them, we’ll have a hard time imagining why we waited so long to do it.