The coronavirus pandemic has wiped out a decade of progress in increasing preschool enrollment – slashing care for more than a quarter of a million children – even as it led to significant cuts in government investment. condition and made it nearly impossible for operators to adhere to best practices.
As daycare and preschool operators, teachers and parents have long lamented the impact of the pandemic on the early education system in the United States — a system already plagued by long-standing challenges regarding access, cost and quality – a new assessment of publicly funded care for 3- and 4-year-olds shows how precarious the system is.
“The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-standing issues of inadequate enrollment, quality and funding,” said Steven Barnett, co-senior director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research.
“For the first time in at least 20 years, enrollment in publicly funded preschools has declined, and the pandemic has erased an entire decade of progress in preschool enrollment,” he said. “Challenges such as health risks, closed classrooms and remote classrooms disrupted an already fragile system.”
The 2021 State of Preschool report, released Tuesday by the institute, documents the impact of the pandemic on preschool education programs delivered in the 2020-2021 school year, the first school year to be fully impacted by the COVID-19 disruptions.
Among other things, the report shows that enrollment in publicly funded kindergartens fell for the first time in 20 years, erasing a decade of growth and leading to a decline of almost 20%, or 300,000 children, in a single year. The greatest negative impact was on children from low-income families and racial and ethnic minorities.
Before the pandemic, six states — Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin — along with Washington, DC, served at least 70% of 4-year-olds, and seven more states were within striking distance. this same goal. Only Washington, which operates a universal pre-kindergarten program as part of its public school system, has managed to maintain these high enrollment rates, serving 84% of 4-year-olds and 64% of 3-year-olds.
A total of 26 states cut early education spending, a decrease of $254 million from the previous year. However, thanks to $440 million in federal COVID-19 assistance, nine states were able to increase early childhood education spending by more than $10 million, led by Maryland with an $84 million increase and New Jersey with a $78 million raise.
“States have done an outstanding job of sustaining their programs despite the pandemic, critically aided by federal pandemic relief funds, which have been key in preserving funding levels,” Barnett said. “Unfortunately, funding remains well below what is needed for high-quality, full-time programs.”
Stretched budgets, staff shortages and general health risks associated with running early childhood education programs hampered best practice for children, the report said, and meant the vast majority of providers were operating with insufficient quality. and were unable to provide developmentally appropriate activities.
“Many of us know how the pandemic has set us back,” Health and Human Affairs Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a call with reporters. “It is critical that we learn from what the pandemic has taught us moving forward.”
“We know things are not where they should be,” he said. “This is a time when we have to move.”
Even before the pandemic, the sector was reeling from a multi-pronged problem: it is unaffordable for most families. Average child care in Washington, DC, for example, costs about $25,000 per year — and it pays workers far too little compensation for the scope of work, degrees and certifications required for the job. The average hourly wage for an educator in the nation’s capital, by comparison, is $18, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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Nationally, the workforce is still 12% below pre-pandemic levels, with workers being courted by companies like Amazon that offer hourly wages well above what the average worker currently earns childcare services, as well as other benefits such as health care and tuition assistance. . The problem was so acute in Washington, DC, that local officials recently approved a plan to pay child care workers one-time payments between $10,000 and $14,000 to boost their salaries.
To further complicate the landscape, with children under 5 not yet eligible for vaccinations, child care centers are still forced to close for days as staff move in and out of quarantines and isolations.
The last three years have weighed on the industry: according to a new report released this month by Child Care Aware of America, nearly 16,000 child care programs in 37 states have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic — a 9% drop in the number of licensed child care providers.
The volatility of the sector has even contributed to women’s ability to keep their jobs during the pandemic. In the first few months of the pandemic, about 3.5 million mothers with school-aged children either lost their jobs, took furloughs, or left the workforce altogether, according to a Census Bureau analysis. A year later, 1.3 million were still locked out of the job market.
While women have recovered lost work, a worrying gender gap remains.
The most recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey data by Enthusiasm in February, which analyzes quit rates by gender since January 2020, shows that the gender gap in quit rates increased in January 2022, with 4.1% of women leaving their jobs compared to 3.4% of ‘men. The increase was the first documented since August 2021.
But Congress’s ability to deliver is not in their favor.
While the Democrats intend to withdraw one or two major policy proposals contained in the Build Back Better proposal to try to pass them as standalone measures, they are still negotiating within their own caucus to identify the policies to be made. to advance. And even though increasing child care funding has long been a bipartisan issue, especially at the state and local levels, it’s virtually a no-start for Republicans in Congress who are loath to support a new national initiative. major.
Republicans would rather increase funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant, a federal program that provinces help states with for child care subsidies for low-income families with children under 13. years. It is currently funded at $5.8 billion per year.
Any significant federal investment would be remarkable for a service long considered a blight on the nation’s education system. When it comes to preschool education – both child care and pre-kindergarten – the United States is eclipsed by the kinds of services and access that other industrialized countries offer families.
In fact, out of 41 industrialized countries, the United States ranks fourth in the percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in preschool, according to a report published last year by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Only Costa Rica, Switzerland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia lag behind the United States, which has an enrollment rate of 65%. More than half of the countries analyzed enroll more than 90% of their children aged 3 to 5 in school.
If Congress is unable to approve a broad package, as originally envisioned in the Build Back Better proposal, a small matching grant program could significantly accelerate progress, the report says. For example, a five-year commitment of just $1 billion in year one, with another $1 billion added each year up to $5 billion in year five, could increase enrollment in high-quality programs. a million children in those five years.
Highlighting the negative impact the pandemic has had on early childhood education programs in the United States, the report shows that even as states recoup losses from the pandemic and return to previous enrollment growth rates, states are not will probably only recruit 40% of 4-year-olds. and 8% of 3-year-olds in 10 years.
“Kindergarten should be accessible to everyone,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a call with reporters. “But at the moment that is not the case.”
“Even though we’ve fully rebounded, we’re not where we need to be,” Cardona said. “It’s unacceptable to just go back to where we were.”