How the House spending bill expands early childhood education

Articles in this guide describe key features of legislation passed by the House to advance President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and overhaul social and climate policy in the United States. The bill now moves to the Senate.

For many years, child care has suffered a combination of problems. For parents, it’s been expensive and hard to find, yet the people working in child care earn so little money that it’s hard to keep them. The House bill aims to address this in several significant ways.

The bottom line: The bill provides funding for states to create universal free prekindergarten programs, using a combination of public schools, community-based programs and Head Start centers. It also creates new subsidies for child care. Low-income parents would not have to pay. Those with higher incomes would have costs capped at 7 percent of income.
What critics say: Some question whether the federal government should play such a large role in education, which is traditionally a state and local function, and some worry that a federal program may come with excessive strings attached. Others say the evidence of effectiveness is shaky. And some worry that a universal program will benefit children from wealthy families rather than focus on those who need help the most.
Senate prognosis: The prospects are likely to be good. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), for instance, who has objected to other elements of the package, has said he is “all in” for pre-K.

The new social spending bill aims to address the demand for both child care and pre-K with about $380 billion in new spending over six years. While other elements of the package were hacked to bring the cost down, this piece comes close to the $450 billion that Democrats had originally envisioned. Both programs are phased in, but by the fourth year, they would be entitlements that are automatically funded to meet whatever demand exists, not subject to the annual appropriations process in Congress.

Child care subsidies: On child care, the new program provides new subsidies worth more than $270 billion aimed at making child care affordable for all families.

Once implemented, the lowest-income families would be eligible for free child care, and most others would have their child care costs capped at 7 percent of income. (Families who earn more than 250 percent of the state median income would not qualify for subsidies.)

Participating states would calculate how much it costs to provide child care in various cities, assuming far higher wages for child care workers than is now the norm. Parents could choose their provider, who would then collect payments from the state and, to the extent allowed, from the families.

Prekindergarten for all: Prekindergarten is conceived as a universal program serving all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds without any payments required, just like public school. Programs that could qualify for funding include school districts, Head Start programs and community-based preschool. Programs would get funding from the state and enroll students from their communities.

States would be required to offer slots to underserved children first. The White House estimates that the funding will be sufficient to eventually serve more than 6 million children per year. The total cost is about $110 billion.

The biggest higher education proposals — in particular, free community college — were jettisoned when the bill was downsized, but there remains $40 billion in new funding for higher education and workforce development. That would increase the maximum Pell Grant by $550 for about 5 million qualifying college students, and provide infrastructure and other grants to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions.

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