Opinion | Parents Need Child Care, Just Not the Kind Congress is Funding

Their parents face the daunting prospect of schools reopening just half-days or part-time, as announced by school districts from Boston to the Bay Area. What parents need is child care that will cover the gaps between their own work schedules and the various on-again off-again school schedules that will soon kick in – an elastic model of child care that often relies on flexible caregivers, not rigidly scheduled centers.

A proven Republican idea could quickly solve this problem – portable vouchers that would instantly award dollars to parents, along with the ability to choose the child care option that works best in their individual circumstances, whether that be a private caregiver or something more formal.

Proven track record

This policy has a proven track record. In 1990, George H.W. Bush used vouchers to help create the first national child-care program, moving beyond Head Start to make early childhood education open to middle-class families and school-age youngsters as well. Bush’s innovation remains the centerpiece of Child Care and Development block grants, which already send $5.9 billion to states each year, helping families pay for over 1.4 million caregivers ­– from close kin to formal centers. Some states, including California, make this support available in the form of vouchers, currently serving about 3 million parents nationwide.

Odd bedfellows have long embraced child-care vouchers. Republicans champion parent choice and this market-friendly tool, while anti-poverty activists back them as efficient cash transfers to families. My own research finds that vouchers appeal to many Black and Latino parents who work swing shifts or irregular hours, often preferring a trusted neighbor to a less personal day-care center, the latter rarely open at night.

A bipartisan consensus on vouchers could yield a richer compromise on spending, backstopping the nation’s colorful array of child-minders, the majority being women earning just above the minimum wage. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) insists on tripling the Republicans’ opening bid for child care. One House bill, approved earlier this month, makes the existing child and dependent-care tax credit fully refundable — a mechanism that would also move dollars to parents via IRS rebates, like the earned income tax credit. But it’s unlikely to flow to parents soon enough to help this fall.

Already a lifeline

Child-care vouchers already provide a lifeline to nearly 3 million parents. Renee Green, a single mother of two in Los Angeles that I met while doing my research, told me she couldn’t get back to work until she found affordable child care. “It’s either child care or rent each month,” Greene told me. Day-care billets average $645 a month in L.A., and the only way Greene can afford that is with a voucher from the state of California.

The ability of Greene’s children to take part with digital instruction at day care offers an added bonus — one that will be particularly important during the hybrid school schedules kids and parents will be negotiating. “Being online at home with the L.A. school system, my kids didn’t want any part of it,” she said. But at the center “everyone was on their Chromebooks at the same time, he was suddenly all in the mix,” Greene said.

Congressional action on vouchers would also help city leaders finance child-care slots for school-age kids. For instance, New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, is directing existing voucher dollars to help parents pay for 100,000 new after-school slots. Child-care quality lags behind in poor and heavily Black parts of the city, as my study team recently detailed. Still, de Blasio’s plan creatively weaves together part-time schooling with afternoon child care, helping parents to balance family and work.

One little appreciated obstacle is that many Democrats tend to see child care as a coherent institution, not as the patchwork of formal and informal arrangements that most families actually use. But even before the pandemic, three in five school-age kids went to individual homes in the afternoon, not to formal centers, nurtured by kin members, paid neighbors or licensed homes, many financed with federal vouchers.

Leading Democratic proposals, including a $50 billion plan from Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a former preschool teacher, already feel obsolete. Her bill would move some new dollars to voucherized block-grants. But advocates have nudged her to focus on pre-K-age children ­– ignoring the nation’s shift toward part-time schooling.

Once school officials reopen classrooms, after-school care ­becomes most essential. “If we do not [support child care] correctly,” Murray said, maybe presciently, “people will not be able to go back to work.”

Avoiding a maze

The $70 billion earmarked for schools by Republican leaders might partially address the problem by reviving after-school programs. But teacher associations will likely oppose this option, since afternoon activities are not typically staffed by union members. And after-school programs won’t help families on days their children remain online at home.

Both Democratic and Republican proposals currently employ a byzantine administrative maze for channeling dollars to child-care centers: first sending funds to governors, who distribute out to municipal agencies, which finally make awards to neighborhood organizations. At this glacial pace, weary parents will still be searching for care as the Covid-19 vaccine arrives. It would be much easier, smarter and more effective, to just put the money directly into parents’ hands.

“I need something that’s consistent, that I can count on,” Greene told me. Congressional leaders, crafting policy together, can quickly deliver this certainty for parents by amply funding federal child-care vouchers ­– helping getting kids back to school, and their relieved parents back to work.