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Free Public Early Childhood Education Is the Only Solution to the Current Childcare Crisis

At a time of pandemic-related crises all throughout our society, the crisis in childcare is particularly brutal. There’s only one solution: free public early childhood education for all.

young children

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, childcare centers and the childcare industry as a whole have been at particular risk. In late July, Congress finally began serious discussions to address this crisis, one that will affect millions of working families and their teachers.

As late as March 20, massive childcare corporations continued to operate, even in hotspots such as New York City. Much like in New York’s public schools, it was teachers and parents that called on these companies to close their centers. In a KinderCare (the largest early education company in the United States) in Northern California, where the children of two hundred families are enrolled, teachers organized a concerted sick-out, parents flooded the center with calls, and ultimately forced the company to shut its centers down.

In NYC, Bright Horizons (another large day care corporation) operated 27 centers for two weeks after Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, and a week after all public schools were shut down. We later learned Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s delays contributed to almost 15,000 deaths in NYC alone.

Recently, the Academy of Pediatrics called for schools to reopen, stating that children are facing greater social-emotional and behavioral challenges by staying home; children, especially younger children, can be safely socially distant at three feet; and students under the age of twelve are less likely to spread the disease even if they are carriers.

But from June 15 to July 6, Texas reported over 1,100 cases from about 700 childcare centers — a confirmed case for more than 5 percent of the state’s childcare facilities. In Florida, California, and Mississippi children are testing positive at rates at or approaching 10 percent. And as the long-term effects of COVID-19 like lung damage in children remain uncertain. Finally, the recent spread of a potentially more contagious influenza strain could further compound the health crisis.

Public schools are now considering whether to reopen come the fall, and how to do so safely. NYC schools are developing plans to rotate part-time schedules for students, limiting the number of people in the school at any given time. In Los Angeles, the United Teachers Los Angeles successfully pressured the district to keep campuses closed.

But in the private childcare industry, these considerations are complicated by the drive for profits. In truth, only a public option for childcare could both prioritize health and safety, and resolve the financial crisis of childcare.

A Health Care Crisis

Childcare centers have long been breeding grounds for colds and infections. The Center for Disease Control has issued guidelines for such centers during the pandemic, but social distancing is all but impossible in early childhood education. Wearing a mask and keeping a distance aren’t things you can expect a toddler to do. Just keeping things out of an infant or toddler’s mouth is an insurmountable challenge. What’s more, ventilation in many of these centers is poor, and since smaller class sizes mean lower profit rates, space is limited.

Early childhood teachers offer children love and affection, change diapers, potty train, hold crying babies, feed young children — all activities that expose them to bacteria and viruses that children may be carrying. It’s easy for a child who has contracted COVID-19 from a family member to infect teachers, or vice versa. And while childcare centers are now obligated to screen children for fevers before entry, children are usually asymptomatic. Worse yet, as childcare corporations look to pad their bottom line, many will continue to ignore important licensing guidelines.

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While KinderCare and Bright Horizons offered furloughed teachers the option to continue paying into health care benefits plans, for many working and furloughed teachers those benefits are unaffordable — and they have remained uninsured throughout the pandemic.

Paid sick leave is another major concern for many teachers in an industry that typically offers very little paid time off (PTO). Some companies allow fourteen days of PTO if a student or teacher in a classroom test positive for COVID-19. But this offers no assurances that a teacher would be able to call in sick if they are showing minor symptoms or if they are sick with something else.

Until the virus’s spread is slowed, childcare centers will continue to worsen the crisis and put the lives of teachers, staff, and community members at risk.

A Childcare Crisis

Unlike the public school system where teachers’ salaries have been continuous, a survey conducted in April found 740,000 out of the 2 million teachers furloughed or laid off staff, while 41 percent of programs nationwide were planning additional cuts to staff. Teachers that did return to work at centers for essential workers made the equivalent or less than those collecting unemployment.

The pandemic has exacerbated the already existing childcare crisis: quality early education is unaffordable to most, often costing families more than private college tuition. And among the 12 million families that qualify for childcare subsidies, only 1.3 million families actually receive government assistance.

Access will further be constricted in the wake of COVID. Fifty percent of all childcare centers in the country risk going out of business as providers struggle to pay for PPE and food. Nationally, KinderCare has seen its enrollment decrease by half. In addition, lower classroom ratios that are needed to limit exposure and overcrowding has led to 70 percent of centers “incurring substantial, additional costs”. This makes the for-profit childcare model even less profitable.

Early childhood educators are a skilled labor force in a difficult and demanding job, but most teachers have long been grossly underpaid, in many cases not making a living wage and making far less than their K-12 counterparts. The average KinderCare employee makes $16,000 a year; for Bright Horizons, the average is $23,969. Top executive compensation exceeds $1 million.

Families’ concerns of safety are now motivating many to seek other options. It would not be surprising to see early childhood educators leave their centers for higher paying nanny positions, as many teachers are. This is the pandemic reality divided on class lines: families that can afford nanny services will be able to receive high-quality, safe childcare.

The crisis of childcare isn’t limited to the profits of those companies or even the plight of those workers. Because so many parents depend on childcare, the current childcare crisis affects the economy as a whole. The Washington Post recently reported that childcare was the biggest barrier to economic recovery: 13 percent of parents have left their jobs or reduced their hours, and 17.5 million parents are taking care of young children and will be unable to work full-time before schools and daycares can safely reopen.

The crisis’s impact on women has been enormous. The pandemic has seen a full 12 percent drop in mothers’ labor force participation, though apparently no “detectable impact” on fathers. Not unrelatedly, the Labor Department reports that more women have lost their jobs than men amid the pandemic. The negative repercussions of leaving the labor force will affect their job prospects for years.

The private childcare industry is itself a legacy of the undue burden placed on women to stay home and do “women’s work.” Affordable childcare and dignified salaries for educators that a public system would offer is critical to a feminist future. 

For black and Latinx families, preschool childcare has already been disproportionately inaccessible. High tuition fees have kept mothers of color at home with children, forced them to stay in relationships that they might otherwise leave, or to continue living with parents who can help with childcare. Their education and careers have always been hampered by the lack of public childcare.

Women of color have also historically filled the ranks of low-income caregiving industries. Early childhood educators are educated and must have an aptitude for compassionate care in difficult situations. Yet average wages for early childhood workers are less than $11 an hour. And though arguably an even more challenging job, teachers of infants and toddlers earn on average $2 less than teachers of children aged three to five. Teachers of younger children also, unsurprisingly, skew African American.

Bright Horizons and KinderCare offer platitudes to teachers working amid the pandemic, and they pay lip service to Black Lives Matter. KinderCare in a statement on June 1st wrote “We oppose racism, discrimination, police brutality and violence of all kinds. Period.” They released a video celebrating Juneteenth. But the poverty wages they pay tell a different story about how much they care for the lives of their workers.

Public Childcare

The childcare industry has received several billions of dollars in bailout funds through the CARES Act and the Childcare Development Block Grant, although it was not nearly enough. Teachers, however, did not benefit from these grants. They continue to work for low wages in hazardous conditions and without guarantee of employment or health care.

Industry leaders like the National Association for the Education of Young Children are now calling for a second round of bailouts totaling $50 billion in funds, which has passed in the House. The GOP Senate proposal falls far short of this, and will only provide funds through September. Any grant, loan, or bailout money going to childcare companies should require childcare employers to rehire all teachers regardless of whether they can put them to work right away. Teachers must be guaranteed extended sick leave and benefits.

But such a bailout would only keep some childcare companies from closing temporarily, and provide funds for sanitizing and PPE. It will not be able to make up for the attrition in enrollment or make up for the lower class ratios for the duration of the crisis.

The privatized model of early childhood education is unsuccessful at providing high quality affordable childcare, and only very large corporations paying minimum wages make consistent profits. For both teachers and parents, the solution to the childcare crisis is to eliminate the profit motive, and make early childhood education a public good.

Publicly provided childcare could prioritize safe environments for children and teachers during the pandemic with a combination of at home childcare and low teacher-to-child ratios at schools, along the lines of state-run eldercare. They could be held accountable to higher ventilation requirements. It could offer stable salaries for teachers. Benefits plans and PTO would allow teachers to seek health care and stay home if sick. And it would mean low or non-existent tuition rates so all families could afford it.

The crisis unfolding since the start of the pandemic proves childcare is central to the economy, and should be a central issue for the labor and socialist movements, no less important than universal health care or living wages for all. At its core, the struggle for public childcare is a feminist, anti-racist fight that impacts the entire working class. Organizing the unorganized, low-wage workforce is central to rebuilding a powerful labor movement.

The answer is obvious, and has been obvious to a majority of American workers: free public early childhood education. Teachers and parents have a shared interest in a system that pays teachers a living wage and offers good, safe care for children.

Daphna Thier is the mother of a toddler, a socialist, and activist based in Brooklyn.

Jonathan Valenti is an early childhood educator and socialist in the Bay Area.