Analysis: Early Childhood Education and Care Are Essential Public Infrastructure. Time to Make Bold Investments to Support Them

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Over the last 18 months, the connection between early educators and the communities they serve has been a lifeline — especially for families. Now, congressional leaders and the Biden administration must determine the final shape of the Build Back Better plan, an ambitious social policy agenda designed to support families, educators and the economy in the years to come.

Through our work at the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative, we’ve heard from thousands of early educators and families with young children, many of whom stand to benefit from these historic investments. 

In conversations and survey responses, largely gathered through the Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H), a large-scale study of young children’s learning and care, two messages came through loud and clear: The past 18 months have been filled with disruption, uncertainty and stress, to be sure. But they also offer key lessons in resilience — and a strong argument in favor of making bold investments that fund early education and care as the essential public infrastructure it is.

In our earliest pandemic surveys, in spring 2020, families worried about how the crisis would affect their physical, mental and financial well-being. In fall 2020 and early 2021, the same parents worried about how the pandemic would affect their children’s academic and social-emotional skills. Over half of early educators working with 3- and 4-year-olds reported changes in children’s behaviors, mostly negative.

At the same time, we saw sources of hope and resilience, including the power of strong relationships between families and educators. After many early education programs and schools closed at the pandemic’s start, nearly all parents said they remained connected to their children’s teachers and schools. Most educators, too, reported providing some form of online instruction and communication via email, phone and text. We often heard of educators bringing learning materials and even food to families’ homes. As the pandemic wore on, most parents said educators and schools played a central role in supporting their families.

Educators continued to do this essential work despite tough conditions that were prevalent even before the pandemic, from inexcusably low pay to disproportionate mental health challenges to scarcity of high-quality professional learning and networks. The public health emergency exacerbated turnover and burnout; in recent months, many early educators have had little choice but to leave the field, setting the stage for a crisis in child care availability, affordability and quality.

What do our findings mean for those who are tasked with determining the future of the Build Back Better agenda? First, given that 75 percent of today’s parents with young children are working, policymakers must conceptualize and fund early education as the public good that it is. In the short term, this means investing strategically to expand access and affordability, support educators and enhance program quality — all steps included in the current version of the Build Back Better plan. In addition to hundreds of billions of dollars in investments in child care affordability and supply, the plan would increase educators’ wages, a necessary action for enhancing quality and reducing turnover across the field. 

These funds would help states build on existing efforts to improve compensation and retention. In Massachusetts, for example, the use of state and federal stabilization and recovery dollars has been guided by a set of core principles: State grants were required to go to worker compensation in the form of salary increases or bonuses. Also, federal child care stabilization funds are being distributed through a formula that rewards child care providers who invest in a larger staff, which helps programs deliver higher-quality education and offer longer, more flexible hours to meet families’ needs.

Policymakers must also ensure that educators get the professional support they need. This includes regular opportunities to strengthen their skills, and connections to networks and resources that foster mental health and well-being. In Massachusetts, making new investments in educator compensation has been paired with redesigning professional development, with an emphasis on expanding access to scholarships, coaching and mentoring.

Finally, policymakers can boost the positive impact of early education and care on children’s healthy development by supporting other kinds of investments in overall family well-being. Parents and other family caregivers have been instrumental in helping children cope with more than a year of unprecedented disruption, stress and change that will, for many, have effects long after the pandemic subsides. Policies that support strong families and healthy child development — and serve to increase and complement the effects of high-quality early education and care — include paid family leave and concrete financial assistance that helps caregivers meet their basic needs for food, housing, and health care. Including these types of direct supports for families in the final version of the Build Back Better plan will produce better outcomes for children and for society as a whole.

Those tasked with shaping the final Build Back Better agenda have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen families, support educators and set children on a path toward a lifetime of healthy development. Even better, these investments in caregivers and children are also investments in the health of the broader economy. When caregivers have the support they need to participate fully in work and community life, and when children grow up in an environment of responsive, stimulating relationships, everyone benefits — now and in the decades to come.

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