Making child care more affordable for working families was one of a handful of education policy positions that President-elect Donald Trump tackled with some specificity on the campaign trail, promising to offer “much-needed relief” through a combination of tax deductions and credits.
But the incoming administration’s views on a number of other early-childhood initiatives championed by the Obama White House—including federal support of state-run preschool programs, home visiting, and Head Start—are as yet unknown. The early-childhood-advocacy community is still grappling with what a Trump administration will mean for those policies and many others.
On the one hand, both Trump and his vice president, former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, have made high-profile pitches on early-childhood issues. As governor, for example, Pence in 2014 made a rare appearance before the state Senate to push for a preschool program, and Indiana now has a pilot program operating in five counties.
A wise path for the Trump administration would include continuing programs that already exist, said Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, citing current federal efforts to support state preschool and to link private child-care providers and Head Start.
“We’ve enjoyed eight years, if not longer, of increasing national and federal attention to early-childhood education,” said Perry. “The federal role is one of partner. There is some accountability around quality, but [federal officials are] not in the driver’s seat.”
Katharine B. Stevens, a resident scholar on early-childhood policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, believes that Trump will be focused on programs that are popular, and that early-childhood policies could be a vehicle.
“It’s clear that child care is a concern for an enormous number of families,” Stevens said. The goal for advocates should be to convince Trump that supporting certain programs, such as home visiting and improving child-care access “is going to win him a lot of points with a lot of people,” she said.
Here’s a look some of the early-childhood programs that have been a part of the federal landscape for the past eight years, as well as an examination of Trump’s own proposals related to early childhood:
Affordable Child Care: Critics of Trump’s initial child-care-affordability proposal said zeroing in on tax deductions would tilt the benefit to more-affluent families who are able to itemize their taxes. Since he first mentioned the topic, the proposal has been changed to add elements that are geared toward lower-income families as well, including:
- A child-care rebate for low-income families that don’t pay taxes, delivered through an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit;
- A dependent-care savings account allowing families to save $2,000 a year pretax, with up to a $1,000 contribution from the federal government for lower-income families;
- What it calls a more favorable regulatory environment for “family-based and community-based solutions,” rather than center-based care; and
- Incentives for employers to provide child care and six weeks of paid maternity leave for women who have given birth, paid for through the unemployment-insurance system.
But the provisions related to child care are just a part of Trump’s tax proposals, and there is a debate over their overall impact on family resources.
The entire package would end up raising the taxes of low- and middle-income families, including single working parents because of other provisions such as eliminating the head-of-household filing status and reducing the amount that could be taken as a personal exemption, said a report written by Lily Batchelder, a visiting fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
During the campaign, however, Trump’s camp disputed the analysis, saying that it didn’t take into account the economic growth that could come from the tax cuts that would increase family incomes overall.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning: In 2011, the Education Department created an office of early learning, and a new administration would have to decide whether to maintain that function. The office counts as achievements the $1 billion invested in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants, which helped 20 states establish more high-quality child-care programs and get more vulnerable children into that care. The department has also funded a grant program for kindergarten-entry assessments, which teachers use to help guide their instruction for children just starting school.
The separate Preschool Development Grant program has provided $750 million to 18 states to help them start up or expand their preschool offerings. And the office has also set up an interagency partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate efforts for children. (Head Start, to give one example, is a federal preschool program housed at HHS.)
Home Visiting: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 created the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, funded at $1.5 billion over five years. The federal block grant provided money to states to start or expand programs that allow trained professionals to work directly with vulnerable families in the family’s own home, on a voluntary basis. In fiscal 2015, the program served more than 145,000 families in all 50 states.
In 2015, the program received an extra $800 million over two years as an addition to a bill that overhauled the payment system for doctors who see Medicare patients. Congress will determine if federal funding for home visiting continues.
Diedra Henry-Spires, the chief executive officer of an early-childhood-advocacy organization called the Dalton Daley Group, said that home-visiting supporters would like to see home visiting funded for five years, gradually increasing to $800 million annually.
Home visiting has also found bipartisan support, she noted. For example, Kentucky’s Health Access Nurturing Development Services, or HANDS, works with first-time parents and has reduced infant-mortality rates and rates of child neglect among the program’s participants.
Preschool Development Grants: The Every Student Succeeds Act preserves the Preschool Development Grant program, which has been authorized for $250 million, but funding is at the discretion of Congress.
The new program, rather than being overseen by the Education Department alone, would be jointly administered by HHS and the Education Department. However, the new program limits the federal government’s role in making rules that states must follow in order to get the money. For example, the federal government cannot tell states to run full-day programs, to use certain metrics to evaluate effectiveness, or to hire only teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree.
Head Start: An overhaul of Head Start’s performance standards finalized in September says that all classes for 4-year-olds must operate at least 1,020 hours a year by August 2021. That, and other regulatory changes, would require another $1 billion be added to Head Start’s $8.6 billion budget. The standards, however, allow HHS to change these requirements if there’s no increase in funding.
Laura Bornfreund, the director of early and elementary education policy with New America, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, believes that Head Start won’t see more money from the new Congress. She also said that it’s an open question as to how much attention will be paid to those new standards overall.
“Something important to remember is that regulations are only as good as how they are enforced,” Bornfreund said. “Are programs going to be held accountable to some of the new things in the regulations, or not?”
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