On Tuesday, Aug. 17, the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings hosted a virtual panel discussion that considers the present and future of early childhood education (ECE) in the United States. The panel consisted of experts with backgrounds in ECE policy, practice, and research. It examined where the sector stands—almost 18 months into the pandemic—and where it might be headed.
Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy, moderated the panel and began the conversation prompting them to share their thoughts on the current state of ECE. A historic lack of investment, precarious working conditions fueled by low wages and a historic opportunity on the horizon were the themes of the discussion.
Christina Weiland, associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education and co-director of the Education Policy Initiative at the Ford School of Public Policy, began by stressing the difficult position the sector finds itself in and noted that many of the children in this age group have spent most of their lives living in a pandemic. ECE enrollment dropped drastically last year, “by 42% in some places,” Weiland said, and is still below pre-pandemic levels. She argued that “as a nation, we have never invested in an ECE system that really works for everyone” and families have struggled to find and afford care for their children.
The conversation continued with Jenna Conway, deputy superintendent of the Division of Early Childhood Education at the Virginia Department of Education, indicating that ECE was “pretty broken before the pandemic.” She described the significant challenges the ECE workforce faces by illustrating that the pre-pandemic educator turnover rate was close to 40% and saying that this figure was “rosy” relative to the current situation. Even though most of the early learning programs across the country are or will be open, “we are certainly not back to normal.” Moving forward, Conway pointed to three key priorities: 1) synchronize federal, state, and local level efforts leveraging “regulation, funding and influence to relentlessly drive outcomes”; 2) increase access and pay programs on the true costs of quality provision; and 3) implement collective measurement and improvement.
Miriam Calderon, deputy assistant secretary of policy and early learning at the Office of Elementary and Second Education at the U.S. Department of Education, highlighted the potentially historic investment on the horizon with the American Families Plan (AFP). She described its objective as building on the sector stabilization provided by the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and “to improve, not to bring it back to where it was.” Calderon communicated the focus on families in the upcoming legislation together with the priority placed on wages to address high turnover rates. Conway added that she hoped the AFP steps in so we don’t have a “cliff effect in two years” when the ARP funds are finished.
Valant then shifted the focus of the panel on the debate between targeted and universal policies, where Conway stressed that eligibility needs to be simplified: “We spend a lot of money on determining eligibility” and families struggle to find what programs they qualify for. “It needs to be simple,” she said. Calderon then introduced the concept of targeted universality, highlighting the disparities in access across racial, income, and zip code lines. Weiland added that ECE is significantly more segregated in places where there is no universality, and that children learn from each other.
With the ECE sector facing staffing challenges coupled with a plan to increase access, the panel agreed that educator compensation and access to professional development opportunities are central issues for policy moving forward. Conway and Weiland argued for treating ECE workers as professionals, moving toward a system where ECE is valued equally to K-12. Calderon emphasized that the existing workforce has assets to build upon and that, demographically, it tends to represent the communities it serves better than the K-12 teaching force does. She stressed, too, that introducing requirements without an increase in compensation leads to “debt and [teacher] turnover.”
The conversation wrapped up with hope and optimism about tackling the ECE sector’s challenges, and it emphasized the need for equity in future investments. Calderon, in particular, expressed excitement about the resources that may be available to meet the sector’s needs.