How states can support parent choice for early learning

Elliot Regenstein and Chris Strausz-Clark
Topic: Outcomes

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, families with young children struggled to find the right early learning setting for their child.  Parents want settings that are affordable, convenient, and where their child will be loved and appreciated.  When those settings exist in a community – and they don’t always – it can still be very difficult for parents to find them.  In a new paper published by the American Enterprise Institute, Improving Parent Choice in Early Learning, we argue that states can take on a new leadership role in supporting parent choice.

Our fragmented early learning system includes multiple public funding sources for early care and education. Head Start, state-funded preschool, and subsidized child care are the three largest, and special education is also an important part of the system.  These programs vary in their eligibility requirements and availability.  They are delivered through a mix of service providers that includes schools, private centers, and private homes – with private providers divided further between for-profits and not-for-profits.

In some ways this variety is a strength; the system is not one-size-fits-all.  But that variety also comes with pitfalls.  Two of the biggest:

  • Resources may not be getting to the right place. Head Start funds are distributed by the federal government, with child care and preschool funds distributed by states.  In most states those programs are housed in two separate agencies.  This means there’s nobody looking at the whole system.  So sometimes in communities preschool programs end up competing with Head Start and child care, while in other communities there’s a shortage of spaces.
  • The system is hard to navigate for families. Low-income families with young children don’t have the time or the resources to systematically track down the best options.  Past efforts to meet them halfway haven’t gone far enough.

Early childhood is a market-driven system, with a mix of governmental and private funding.  Some providers operate solely on public funding, some rely solely on parent funding, and some with a mix.  Without good information about who’s doing what, state government can’t maximize the efficiency of its resource allocations – nor can it help parents find the services they need.

Moreover, our current approach to funding early childhood services places a disproportionate burden on those least prepared to absorb it. Most child care providers — almost all of whom are women — are underpaid.  Low-income parents barely above the federal poverty line are still asked to pay for child care rather than receive it as a public good.  The failure to support these providers and families creates serious equity issues. The families who have the most resources are most likely to find what they need, and the families with the greatest needs are most likely to be left out in the cold.

We argue that states should consolidate, integrate, and augment their expertise to focus on the entire early childhood ecosystem.  High-level leadership is needed to assess the landscape holistically, create a clear vision to deploy resources, improve enrollment systems to support the process of parent choice, and support effective implementation at the local level.  States should also provide better information to parents about their available options to help them make the best choices, given their needs.

This type of backbone infrastructure could go a long way toward helping families.  It would increase the odds that states foster more quality programs in communities that need it most, and that families are then able to access those programs.

During the pandemic we have seen a bipartisan understanding of the important role child care plays in supporting families and getting the country back to work.  But post-pandemic we should not just resume the system we had before. Instead, there is a growing consensus that parents need more help placing their children in the right early childhood setting.

Fortunately many states have already started working on building this infrastructure.  Almost every state won an initial grant under the federal Preschool Development Grant program, which required states to develop plans to support parent choice.  States with renewal grants are now in the process of implementing those plans.  But those grants will not be enough to finish the work, and more than 20 states did not win renewal grants.  As the federal government considers opportunities to partner with states in a bipartisan way on work that can have a transformative impact on the early childhood field, support for improving family choice should be high on the list.

Regenstein, E., & Strausz-Clark, C. (2021, January). Improving Parent Choice in Early Learning. Retrieved from

Elliot Regenstein is a partner at Foresight Law+ Policy. He served as co-chair of the Illinois Early Leaming Council from 2004 to 2009 and has worked with states nationwide on early childhood and K-12 policy.

Chris Strausz-Clark is managing principal of Third Sector Intelligence (3Si), a firm based in Seattle, Washington, that helps states use data more effectively.

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