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Should the federal government provide free, universal child care?

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Jessica Bradley Rushing

Jessica Bradley Rushing

Pembroke Select Board member; chair of the Pembroke Democratic Town Committee

As the mother of four children, all my career decisions for the last 16 years have been based almost solely on the availability of quality, affordable childcare. A decade ago, I left the workforce for several years because it made more financial sense for me not to work than it did to pay for child care for four children. I earn less today than I did 10 years ago, and my career trajectory changed significantly as a result of my decision to stay home for a few years.


My experience is far from rare and our family was lucky we were able to get by on just my husband’s paycheck.

But families shouldn’t have to rely on luck to get by.

Whether you are a single working parent or a family where both parents work, child care is a fundamental need.

Universal childcare, provided for all by the federal government, is a solution that enables parents to work to support their families, obtain economic stability, strive for upward mobility, and pursue their career goals, without the burden and stress caused by the exorbitant expense of child care.

The federal government defines “affordable” child care as costing no more than 7 percent of a family’s income. But working families on average spend 10 percent of their income on child care. Low-income working families that pay for child care on average spend 35 percent of their income on it - five times what is considered affordable, according to the Center for American Progress.

Often, the cost of childcare is so high that it forces parents, like me, out of the workforce altogether. Women disproportionately bear this burden and participate less often in the labor force for this very reason.


If anything has been made clear over the last few months of this COVID pandemic, it is that we must reexamine what we prioritize as a society, and that affordable, quality childcare is a critical component for the reopening of our economy.

A budget is a statement of priorities; as the wealthiest nation in the world, universal childcare is within our reach. We can make it a reality if we only prioritize it.


Jamie Gass

Jamie Gass

Director of education research and policy at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank; Newton resident

The states must “be considered as essential, component parts of the Union,” founding father Alexander Hamilton declared in 1788, “and therefore the idea of sacrificing the former to the latter is wholly inadmissible.”

Free, universal child care provided by the federal government would be contrary to the spirit of the Founders’ view of K-12 education as the constitutional domain of state and local governments. Nevertheless, in the 55 years since President Lyndon Johnson established the federal Head Start program, some policymakers have advocated for nationalizing early childhood education, in part as a way to help fight poverty.

A policy brief I helped co-author in May reveals that the federal government today provides approximately 69 preschool and early childhood education subsidies across 10 federal agencies, costing US taxpayers around $25 billion annually. The largest and most expensive of these programs is Head Start, which cost more than $10 billion in fiscal 2020, or $240 billion since 1965.

What are the results?


According to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” national fourth-grade reading scores were a mere three points higher than in 1992.

In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start, released an updated rigorous study that tracked 5,000 3- and 4-year-old children through the end of third grade. It found that Head Start had little or no sustained impact on the cognitive development of the study’s participants.cq The findings show that the model for any federally driven early childhood education has failed spectacularly at fulfilling its own promises.

As the movie version of the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton” sweeps the nation, let’s recommit ourselves to the framers’ wisdom about education and federalism.

This could be accomplished by sunsetting Head Start and dozens of other federal early childhood education programs over the next decade. In the interim, they should be turned into block grants that would allow states to make preschool dollars portable to follow eligible children to the private provider of their choice. Finally, states could authorize more early-grade charter public schools to better serve the urban kids who are most in need of academic-quality early childhood education.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.