A Conservative Approach to Early Childhood Education: Building on the Foundations of Success & Boosting Academic Achievement Through Choice

Representative Burgess Owens*

I. INTRODUCTION

As the son of an educator and a grandfather to sixteen school-aged children, I believe that Early Childhood Education (“ECE”) is essential for many reasons, one of which is that ECE simultaneously provides support for children to learn, for parents to enter the workplace, and for future generations of American workers to grow. I have seen the importance of ECE firsthand as a father and grandfather, as well as in my role as Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education.

Raising children is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences in a person’s life. As part of that process, ensuring that children have a solid start is the first step to helping them grow and develop. One of the most important tools at a parent’s disposal is ECE, access to which has significant impact on the foundations that are built for children from birth to fifth grade.1 See Early Childhood Education, CTRS. FOR DISEASE CONTROL & PREVENTION, https://www.cdc.gov/policy/hst/hi5/earlychildhoodeducation/index.html [https://perma.cc/HZQ3-K5GQ].  The impact of high-quality early education on childhood development and beyond cannot be overstated. Americans of all political stripes, alongside local municipalities and private sector partners, must work together to support a strong child care sector that assists hardworking American families.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a significant blow to child care, in-person education, and the American workforce. When most of the economy was shut down, schools and child care centers also shut down.2 See Map: Coronavirus and School Cloures in 2019-2020, EDWEEK (Mar. 6, 2020), https://www.edweek.org/leadership/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures-in-2019-2020/2020/03#:~:text=The%20coronavirus%20pandemic%20forced%20a,6%20to%20May%2015%2C%202020. [https://perma.cc/X9Z8-NFZH]; NAT’L ASS’N FOR THE EDUC. YOUNG CHILDREN, AM I NEXT SACRIFICING TO STAY OPEN, CHILD CARE PROVIDERS FACE A BLEAK FUTURE WITHOUT RELIEF (2020). As the pandemic wore on, many schools remained closed, but child care providers worked to remain open or reopen because they recognized their importance in keeping America going and helping families and children succeed.3See Anya Kamenetz, What Parents Can Learn from Child Care Centers That Stayed Open During Lockdowns, NPR (June 24, 2020, 7:01 AM), https://www.npr.org/2020/06/24/882316641/what-parents-can-learn-from-child-care-centers-that-stayed-open-during-lockdowns [https://perma.cc/FG84-DPRF].

When combating these challenges, we must remember that the beginning years of a child’s life are the building blocks upon which they rely on to create a bright future. Without access to high-quality care, as defined by meeting the specific needs of each child, it is often more difficult for parents to go to work or further their own education. Access to ECE in America will help determine the success of future generations. It is imperative that we think outside the box and focus wholly on children by protecting parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, and prioritizing the future workforce of America. The time to work together for bipartisan childcare solutions that encompass program alignment across federal, state, and local governments is now.  We have no time to waste—parents are waiting, children are growing, and our nation is falling behind as a leader in education.

II. EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION IS THE FOUNDATION FOR LIFELONG SUCCESS

The building blocks of early childhood education originate with parents. Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers, and are front and center in all decisions when it comes to their children. Studies have shown the importance of parents reading to their children from infancy, including a 2014 study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics which showed that these simple practices led to higher literacy and language skills.4See Motoko Rich, Pediatrics Group to Recommend Reading Aloud to Children From Birth, N.Y. TIMES (June 24, 2013), https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/24/us/pediatrics-group-to-recommend-reading-aloud-to-children-from-birth.html [https://perma.cc/77LZ-NLBV].

Families need a variety of ECE options, including child care and pre-kindergarten (“pre-K”). Child care services focus on providing a safe environment for infants and toddlers while one or more parent is at work.5See Types of Child Care, CHILD CARE AWARE, https://www.childcareaware.org/families/types-child-care/#:~:text=Child%20care%20centers%20have%20a,activities%20and%20opportunities%20for%20children. [https://perma.cc/AE2C-D6CH] (last visited Apr. 2, 2022). Pre-K services primarily focus on preparing children—mainly three- or -four-year-olds—to begin elementary education.6See What is Pre-K?, HOME READING HELPER, https://www.homereadinghelper.org/what-is-pre-k/ [https://perma.cc/NKL5-MSCK] (last visited Apr. 2, 2022). While the delivery of child care and pre-K services may differ, both are important in the early development of a child’s learning. Research suggests the sum of a child’s experiences prior to beginning elementary education will provide either a “sturdy or fragile foundation.”7See BROOKINGS, THE CURRENT STATE OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE ON PRE-KINDERGARTEN EFFECTS 22 (2017).

With the rise of dual income households and single parents, as well as a growing workforce, Utah working families depend heavily on and benefit greatly from a variety of educational options.8See WORKFORCE SERVS. CHILDCARE, CHILDCARE ACCESS IN UTAH 4 (2020). In Utah’s fourth district, home to parts of urban Salt Lake City and rural Mount Pleasant, I hear from parents who require non-traditional child care hours to manage full-time jobs, school schedules, and other obligations. I hear from other parents that ECE is a luxury that is far too expensive for their families. Still, others depend on their church or other community resources to subsidize ECE during hours when parents are at work or school. The ideal system should reflect different parents’ and families’ specific needs. A mixed delivery system of child care providers is critical to the success of the system for families and children.

It is a sad reality that countless American families are stuck in a vicious cycle where lack of educational options negatively impacts parents’ ability to attend work, provide for their family, and boost opportunities for their children in the future. A 2019 analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center estimated about sixty-three percent of families in my congressional district who need child care are unable to access it.9See BIPARTISAN POL’Y CTR., THE SUPPLY OF, POTENTIAL NEED FOR, AND ECONOMIC IMPACT OF THE GAPS IN CHILD CARE IN UTAH IN 2019 1 (2019), https://childcaregap.org/assets/onePagers/Utah.pdf [https://perma.cc/G9C8-QNDE]. This gap in child care coverage could cost hardworking families in Utah’s Fourth District as much as one billion dollars every year.10See BIPARTISAN POL’Y CTR., CHILDCARE GAPS ASSESSMENT: INTERACTIVE MAP (2019), https://childcaregap.org/ [https://perma.cc/W3Z8-WAFS].

In 2022 families are grappling with increased inflation, out-of-touch spending in Washington, and tax increases. Families face increased cost of mortgages, food, gas, and everything in between. Compounding the financial strain of many families is the unrealistically high cost of ECE programs, which is a necessity that many families require to attend work, school, and make ends meet.

Additionally, studies show that a lack of affordable and high-quality child care can have drastic consequences on a child’s academic future and lifelong success.11See Noreen Yazejian, Donna M. Bryant, Sydney Hans, Diane Horm, Lisa St. Clair, Nancy File & Margaret Burchinal, Child and Parenting Outcomes After 1 Year of Educare, 88 CHILD DEV. 1671 (Feb. 8, 2017), https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cdev.12688 [https://perma.cc/L5G8-5RYQ]. A 2019 study found that only thirty-five percent of the nation’s fourth graders were proficient in reading.12See How Did U.S. Students Perform on the Most Recent Assessments?, NATION’S REP. CARD, https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/ [https://perma.cc/LK6H-P5JU]. With time away from the classroom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the outcomes for students across the country are slowly dipping into an academic crisis.13See Rachel Clarke, Many Predicted Some Kind of ‘Covid Slide’ in Learning. Test Results Show How Bad It Is, CNN (Aug. 25, 2021, 9:43 AM), https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/25/us/school-test-scores-covid-pandemic/index.html [https://perma.cc/4FRT-CVJK]. In Virginia, pandemic-related disruptions, including time away from the classroom, took a toll on students’ standardized test scores, further impacting academic achievement.14See Hannah Natanson, Standardized Testing Scores Drop in Virginia, Reflecting Impact of Pandemic, WASH. POST (Sept. 2, 2021, 11:00 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virginia-school-exams-sol-scores-covid/2021/09/01/781483a2-0b4f-11ec-aea1-42a8138f132a_story.html [https://perma.cc/Q47D-2TNS].

Early childhood education yields considerable lifelong benefits. A 2020 study conducted by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that a strong early childhood education led to students who were less likely to be arrested, more likely to graduate, and less likely to struggle with substance abuse as adults.15See Research Developments, Small Investment in Children’s Education Yields Big Results, EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER NAT’L INST. CHILD HEALTH & HUM. DEV., (Mar. 11, 2015), https://www.nichd.nih.gov/newsroom/releases/031115-podcast-reynolds [https://perma.cc/RK8Q-DBJJ].

I believe we can improve long-term outcomes and achieve academic success rates by following three guiding principles when rebuilding the ECE system: (1) responsiveness to parental needs and flexibility to accommodate choice; (2) protection of safety without adding red tape; and (3) driving down costs and ensuring effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

III. FLEXIBILITY & RESPONSIVENESS IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION DELIVERY

Parents are the premier advocates for their children, and their voices should be front and center as we work to improve educational opportunities to be responsive to their individual needs and flexible to accommodate their personal choices.

One of the strengths of child care in America is that—if economically feasible—parents can often choose the care option that works best for their child. There are many factors to take into consideration, whether the decision involves placing their child in a faith-based center, a small family daycare, a facility near work or closer to home, a center with a more robust educational aspect, a program that offers flexibility in the hours available to families with non-traditional work schedules, or something alternative. Considering the wide variety of options, our country should recognize that a well-rounded and robust system that can adapt to meet the needs, including economic constraints, of working families is the way forward. We can build upon the fundamental belief and protection of choice by establishing a structure that prioritizes a mixed delivery system, so that parents can find the right delivery model for their child’s early education. By utilizing a mixed delivery system, parents are given a range of options, allowing them to choose the solution that is best for their child’s development and family wellbeing.

The ability of parents to have choice in their child’s education is important because different regions and cultures within the United States have different needs. For example, a 2019 study conducted in Utah reported that fifty-three percent of Utah’s children had at least one parent at home.16See Census: Utah Home to Lots of Stay-at-Home Mothers, KSL.COM (Oct. 1, 2009), https://www.ksl.com/article/8133279/census-utah-home-to-lots-of-stay-at-home-mothers [https://perma.cc/MU82-QLUL]. This number is nearly twenty percent higher than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.17See Press Release, Bureau Lab. Statistics, Employment Characteristics of Families – 2020 (Apr. 21, 2021), https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/famee.pdf [https://perma.cc/C5AX-EDKZ]. Implementing a one-size fits all approach fails to account for economic, religious, and cultural differences across all fifty states. Early education options impact families on an acutely personal level, such that state and local officials are best positioned to enact reforms that are tailor-made to address local needs and circumstances.

A good start to ensuring flexibility in our country’s ECE system is the Working Families Flexibility Act,18S. 247, 117th Cong. (2021). introduced by Utah Senator Mike Lee in February 2021, to assist parents who are adapting to pandemic-related hurdles. In 1978, Congress passed the Federal Employee Flexible and Compressed Work Schedule Act,195 U.S.C. § 6120. which enabled federal, state, and local governments to give their employees the choice between overtime pay and additional paid time off for working overtime hours. Unfortunately, private-sector workers and employers were not provided the same flexibility and continue to be unfairly barred from such a choice. The Working Families Flexibility Act fixes this disparity by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act of 19382029 U.S.C. § 203. to provide private-sector employers with the necessary flexibility to allow their employees to choose either traditional overtime pay or paid time off for any overtime hours worked. As helpful as the Flexible and Compressed Work Schedule Act has been in providing options for government employees, private-sector workers should be entitled to the same flexibility. The Working Families Flexibility Act would ensure all parents are empowered to better balance work and family obligations, which I know from experience can be difficult. We should also consider the impact that access to early childhood education options (or lack thereof) can have on the economy, business sector, and employee retention.

The Working Families Flexibility Act empowers workers to choose which commodity—time or money—is the most critical resource at any given time, while lowering the burden of unnecessary regulations on families. Included in its framework is the protection of faith-based providers, who, for decades, have served as cherished and effective early childhood care providers. Faith-based child care options are some of the most popular in the country, as shown in a December 2020 national survey finding that fifty-three percent of parents who used center-based providers used faith-based centers.21See BIPARTISAN POL’Y CTR., EXAMINING THE ROLE OF FAITH-BASED CHILD CARE 3 (2021), https://bipartisanpolicy.org/report/faith-based-child-care/ [https://perma.cc/SB9Z-3VDY].

Attempts to prohibit faith-based providers from receiving federal funding for their work to provide childcare and early education are counter-productive and discriminatory. In Espinoza vs. Montana,22591 U.S. ___, 140 S. Ct. 2246 (2020). the Supreme Court ruled that a state-based scholarship program that provides public funds to allow students to attend private schools cannot discriminate against religious schools under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. The ruling in this case is expected to further open the door for religious schools and ECE providers, many of which operate on a “mission basis” at reduced rates, to receive federal funding on an equal playing field with other nonprofit providers.23See Elizabeth Slattery & Ethan Blevins, Opinion: Supreme Court Ensures More Educational Opportunities for Kids, HILL (July 7, 2020), https://thehill.com/opinion/education/505815-supreme-court-ensures-more-educational-opportunity-for-kids/ [https://perma.cc/6WZH-U5UY]. This is a continuation of good policy that helps children who need it the most. Efforts to exclude certain religious institutions from receiving funds are not only discriminatory—but also counterproductive to providing much needed flexibility to parents and students. As costs continue to rise for families, we need an all hands on deck approach to offer ECE solutions that meet individual needs and circumstances. Faith-based providers have an important role to play in a mixed-delivery system designed to give families more affordable options to further their child’s development.

IV. STREAMLINING THE EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION SYSTEM WHILE KEEPING SAFETY STANDARDS

Early childhood education is expensive, and we need a system that preserves the mixed-delivery system of providers without implementing undue and duplicative requirements that drive up the cost of care.

Safety is the first and ultimate consideration for any parent placing their child in care. Common sense regulations that keep kids safe are important, but proposed and adopted regulations, paperwork, and bureaucracy that do not directly benefit education and development often do not put children first. Duplicative requirements in multiple laws also drive up these costs. While individual requirements may make sense, when they overlap with requirements of other laws they provide additional paperwork, cost, and challenges for providers.

Recent research has shown that tighter industry regulations have a minimal impact on improving child outcomes, while also leading to increased costs for families and fewer child care centers.24See Devon Gorry & Diana W. Thomas, Regulation and The Cost of Childcare, 49 APPLIED ECON. 4138, 4145 (2017), https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1934&context=econ_facpubs [https://perma.cc/GU3H-RWCY]. States are primarily responsible for crafting commonsense regulatory frameworks that protect young children and provide an environment conducive to learning and development. While many regulations are well-intentioned, some added requirements can impose an undue burden on providers.25See Vincent Geloso, Daycare Costs are Driven by Over-Regulation, AM. INST. FOR ECON. RSCH. (Feb. 25, 2021), https://www.aier.org/article/daycare-costs-are-driven-by-over-regulation/ [https://perma.cc/EUK9-544K].

One of the main drivers of increased costs is the child-to-teacher ratio. Some argue that smaller child-to-teacher ratios lead to vastly improved learning outcomes, as children are able to receive more individual attention and instruction. Yet, studies have shown that smaller child-to-teacher ratios had “no significant effect on quality” of education.26Gorry & Thomas, supra note 24. Every policy choice has a cost, and state and local policymakers need to ensure they are following the latest research to fully understand the impact of the policy on children, and specifically how effective the policy is at keeping children safe.

Some regulations are necessary to ensure students receive high-quality instruction and remain safe while in the care of others. Research suggests teacher education in early childhood education is one of the primary determinants of high-quality care and development.27See David M. Blau, The Production of Quality in Child Care Centers: Another Look, 4 Applied Dev. Sci. 136 (2000). Common sense requirements around licensing set at the state and local level may make sense for families and providers. Underlying this discussion is the need for state and local policymakers to regularly evaluate compliance burdens placed on providers, looking to balance child development, safety, and financial costs to families. As new research and data offer new insights on early childhood development, such as ideal child-to-teacher ratios, regulators should strive to adapt frameworks that protect children and optimize cost burdens.

V. SAVING TAXPAYER DOLLARS & ENSURING EFFECTIVE TRANSPARENCY IN FEDERALLY FUNDED EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

State and local policymakers should establish exceptional standards for high-quality early childhood education and care in America, with a focus on accelerating academic growth and supporting families. Congress should work alongside those state and local officials and the private sector to develop a system that respects that the funding used to pay for these programs is from hardworking taxpayers, prioritizes families in need, and ensures strong accountability in the programs currently funded.

Currently, financing for child care and early education in the United States involves multiple programs and funding streams with different eligibility requirements, governance structures, and quality standards.28See Childcare Financial Assistance Options, CHILDCARE.GOV, https://childcare.gov/consumer-education/get-help-paying-for-child-care [https://perma.cc/48T9-6PXE]. This has created bureaucratic hurdles for families and communities when navigating services, and has led to known overlap, gaps in services, and wasteful spending.29See GOV’T ACCOUNTABILITY OFF., EARLY LEARNING AND CHILD CARE: AGENCIES HAVE HELPED ADDRESS FRAGMENTATION AND OVERLAP THROUGH IMPROVED COORDINATION (2017), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-17-463.pdf [https://perma.cc/U5LM-DLX5].

To address these problems, I introduced the Modernizing Financing of Early Care and Education in America Act of 2021 (the “Act”),30H.R. 3943, 117th Cong. (2021). which would establish a bipartisan commission to streamline programs while effectively utilizing federal dollars for ECE. The Act’s recommendations are set to benefit parents and taxpayers alike, ensuring affordable learning options, expanded parent choice, and a sustainable funding stream for the future. When talking about and solving issues in early childhood education, we should be focused on saving precious time and money. This commission would help determine what works, what does not work, and how we can avoid duplicative and stifling regulations that ultimately hurt the private sector partners and families of school-aged children.31See id.

Another good model for expanding options is the Preschool Development Grant (“PDG”) program funded through the United States Department of Health and Human Services in consultation with the United States Department of Education.32See Preschool Development Birth through Five (PDG B-5), OFF. EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOP., U.S. DEP’T HEALTH & HUM. SERVS. (Nov. 3, 2020), https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ecd/early-learning/preschool-development-grants [https://perma.cc/QR4K-E9YY]. This program provides an opportunity for states to examine the landscape of early childhood education and assess where the gaps are in both programs offered and children served.33See id. As previously noted, with several funding streams from federal, state, and local government, it is hard to see where children may be falling through the cracks and where there is overlap in funding. The PDG grants were intended to help states track funding and simplify ECE’s plan, so taxpayer funding and private partners are used in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

VI. BOOSTING STUDENT ACADEMIC OUTCOMES THROUGH SCHOOL CHOICE

The years from birth through age five are the most formative years of a child’s life, but the foundational building blocks of early education do not stop there. Parental choice is critical to maximizing child development.

From early learning to higher education, every student in America deserves access to a high-quality education—regardless of race, income, or zip code. A uniform national education model does not fit the needs of individual states, and no child should have to remain trapped in a failing classroom when there are diverse and available options for success around the corner. In Utah, school choice is providing families with additional options to improve educational outcomes, while saving taxpayer funds in the process.34See MARTIN F. LUEKEN, FISCAL RSCH. & EDUC. CTR., FISCAL EFFECTS OF SCHOOL CHOICE 204 (2021), https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Fiscal-Effects-of-School-Choice-Condensed.pdf [https://perma.cc/RJU5-FCHF].

With a passion for choice and a state that thrives on diverse opportunities, the first piece of legislation I introduced was the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act.35H.R. 889, 117th Cong. (2021). This bill would expand quality elementary, secondary, and career and technical education opportunities for students by providing a federal tax credit to encourage individuals and businesses to donate to nonprofit scholarship funds.

I would also like to see the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program receive long-term congressional support. Currently, this program, which parents of low-income children in Washington, D.C. are desperate to participate in, is the only school choice scholarship program funded by Congress.36See D.C. Opportunity Scholarhsip Program, EDCHOICE, https://www.edchoice.org/school-choice/programs/district-of-columbia-opportunity-scholarship-program/ [https://perma.cc/X9P5-C6X2]. The program has proven enormously successful, increasing graduation rates among participants by as much as twenty-one percent.37See MATTHEW M. CHINGOS, THE EFFECT OF THE DC SCHOOL VOUCHER PROGRAM ON COLLEGE ENROLLMENT 10 (2018), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/96686/the_effect_of_the_dc_school_voucher_program_on_college_enrollment_2.pdf [https://perma.cc/B5KJ-R49N]. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has proposed phasing the program out over the next several years.38Opinion: Why are Unions and Democrats So Opposed to Giving Poor Children a Choice in Schooling?, WASH. POST (July 8, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/08/save-dc-private-school-voucher-program-unions/ [https://perma.cc/G5WY-M9PZ].Congress should continue its bipartisan support of this program and protect families’ access to these educational options.

School choice works. In fact, Utah is among those leading the nation through innovation that will ultimately propel the rising generation into the future in terms of success rates, academic achievement, and future workforce development.

VII. CONCLUSION

The American Dream is a foundational creed in our country because it allows anyone from anywhere to do anything. Hard work is deeply ingrained into the American spirit, and it is the basis for how we collectively address our nation’s most pressing issues. I believe in dreaming big and working together to empower those outside the halls of government to support children, parents, and our education system.

The success of America’s future generations reflects the innovation and investment we make as a country. Responding to parental needs and flexibility of choice, ensuring child safety is front and center while debloating the private sector, as well as ensuring effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars is a recipe for success.


*Representative Burgess Owens (R-Utah) is the son of two educators, father of six, and grandfather to sixteen school-aged children. On top of representing Utah’s fourth congressional district, Representative Owens serves on the House Education and Labor Committee and leads the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education.