The Early Childhood Sector Could Become Education’s Most Notable Example...

Opinion | Early Learning

The Early Childhood Sector Could Become Education’s Most Notable Example of 'Learning Loss'

By Dan Wuori and Javaid Siddiqi     Dec 19, 2022

The Early Childhood Sector Could Become Education’s Most Notable Example of 'Learning Loss'

As 2022 turned into 2023, EdSurge asked educators and education leaders to share reflections on learning “lost” and “gained.”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, education policymakers have debated the best ways to prevent and remedy learning loss. For our nation’s youngest learners, this loss has been multilayered, with developmental and academic losses compounded by diminished access to early childhood programs themselves.

During the 2020-21 school year, for example, the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University documented historic declines in the number of children enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs, with participation in six states decreasing by 30 percent or more. That same year, the nation’s kindergarten enrollment dropped by an estimated 340,000 children, with the steepest declines demonstrated among students from low-income families.

It might be tempting to write off this particular phenomenon as a one-time reaction to the onset of a historic global public health crisis. And there may be some wisdom to this line of thinking, as recent data suggests that public school pre-K and kindergarten enrollment are both demonstrating signs of a rebound.

But the same cannot be said of the American child care industry, where both longstanding and real-time economic forces continue to conspire against providers and families, depressing enrollment and staffing well below pre-pandemic levels. There is every reason to believe America’s child care crisis will get worse before it gets better.

Even before the pandemic, child care was a textbook example of a broken market—a faulty three-legged stool in which parents often pay more for infant care than for housing or in-state college tuition, providers squeak by on the narrowest of profit margins and the whole sad affair is balanced on the backs of a low-income workforce comprised largely by women of color.

If the industry was teetering on the brink before COVID, the pandemic threatened to push it right over the edge. With mandated closures in many states followed by public health restrictions on enrollment, it is only by virtue of one-time federal relief dollars that the industry remains mostly, —if precariously—solvent as we close out 2022.

Barring urgent intervention by Congress and the states, however, the industry is headed for collapse.

While recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the nation’s overall employment now slightly exceeds its pre-pandemic level, the same is not true of child care, where employment in the sector remains some 8 percent below its early 2020 benchmark.

This isn’t due to lack of parental demand, but rather an increasing inability to attract teachers willing to staff classrooms for the wages the industry can afford to offer. In 2021, the average pay for child care workers in the U.S. was $13.31 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly $11 an hour below the nation’s “living wage” of $24.16 for a family of four, according to the living wage calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Like many problems in child care, the question of workforce compensation is a longstanding challenge recently exacerbated by the pandemic as fast-food restaurants, big box stores and other low-wage employers resort to significant pay increases in order to remain competitive. This is a luxury child care providers cannot easily afford without passing additional cost onto already-overburdened parents.

The result is a loss of service to children and families. With providers unable to field eligible candidates, a growing number of child care classrooms are currently sitting vacant, even in the face of unprecedented demand. Indeed, recent reporting suggests that one rural Oregon provider has placed frozen embryos on its years-long waiting list.

And with one-time COVID relief dollars set to expire in 2024 currently sustaining the industry, the pandemic’s most significant learning loss is poised to become the early childhood sector itself, threatening the workforce participation of millions of American parents, the productivity of their employers and state economies writ large.

Fortunately, there is growing evidence of policymaker awareness on this front; a sign of learning gained.

In Congress, following a contentious partisan debate over the Biden administration’s Build Back Better agenda (which would have infused historic new funding for both child care and pre-K), fourteen Republican Senators, led by South Carolina’s Tim Scott, have introduced legislation to reauthorize and expand the nation’s Child Care and Development Block Grant. (Companion legislation was introduced in the U.S. House on December 1, 2022.) In what can only be described as a bipartisan compromise in the making, the bill mirrors significant aspects of the Biden plan: Expanding access to child care subsidies, capping parental co-payments at 7 percent of annual income and resetting the methodology by which states set their own rates to providers.

Meanwhile in New Mexico, voters recently demonstrated just how much bipartisan support such investments enjoy, passing a constitutional amendment that will infuse an estimated $150 million annually into early childhood programs. The measure passed with 70 percent of the vote, far outpacing the 52 percent garnered by the state’s Democratic governor in her successful reelection bid. The key takeaway: Early childhood investments enjoy the overwhelming support of Democrats and Republicans alike.

This bipartisan spirit extends to governors and state legislatures as well. Maryland’s Democratic Governor-Elect Wes Moore ran successfully on a platform that included the expansion of pre-K, while Arkansas’ Republican Governor-Elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders did the same. In September, North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum announced a proposed $80 million framework to expand access to child care subsidies for working families, coupled with rate increases to providers designed to stabilize the industry. Meanwhile both Alabama and Washington, D.C., have committed significant resources to reforming child care compensation, boosting annual provider pay by $12,000 and $14,000 respectively.

Should this momentum accelerate, the nation might still avert the disaster that awaits it on the other side of the looming COVID funding cliff. If it doesn’t, don’t be surprised if access to high-quality child care goes down in history among the pandemic’s most notable education losses.

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