University of Wisconsin–Madison

Affordable Childcare

What's the Problem & How are Progressives Addressing It

High-quality childcare is critical for providing children with the necessary foundation for ongoing learning and progress. However, the United States is one of the least affordable places for childcare among developed nations, and current state and federal funding falls short of serving even those families who are eligible for childcare subsidies.

The benefits of quality childcare are clear. Research shows that improving early learning programs could cut the achievement gap between students based on socioeconomic factors by 40%, and economic studies find substantial returns on investment in childhood education. Affordable, high-quality childcare is especially important for working families, who spend almost 10% of their income on childcare.

To be effective, local childcare reform must tackle the main problems in the existing system, including the shortage of affordable options, low quality of existing services, and lack of resources or protections for parents staying at home with infants.

Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms

Given the limited resources provided by federal and state agencies, local governments should consider the use of dedicated taxes and levies to fund childcare services and early care programs.

Local childcare reforms should recognize the needs of working families for flexibility and accommodate complex work schedules. They should strive to improve the compensation for teachers, reward them for improving their skills and qualifications, and take additional steps to reduce turnover rates and stabilize the workforce.

Where state laws permit, locallLocal governments should pass legislation requiring businesses to provide paid family leave for their employees in order to facilitate new parents’ staying home. As a first step in this direction, cities and counties should provide these benefits to their employees.

Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them

Reforming childcare services requires funding, which is always in short supply in the public sector. Many cities and counties have used dedicated taxes and levies to increase funding for childcare and early care programs. For example, in 1990 Aspen established the Kids First program, which is funded through a dedicated sales tax 0.45%. San Francisco approved the Children’s Amendment in 1991, setting aside 3% of the city’s property tax revenue in a special fund to be spent on services for children and youth. Cincinnati approved a large tax levy to infuse money into public schools and preschool programs in 2016.

Local governments have approved paid family leave ordinances in their jurisdiction, or provided such benefits to their own employees. San Francisco approved a Paid Parental Leave Ordinance (SF PPLO), which requires businesses to provide supplemental compensation on top of the California Paid Family Leave (PFL) benefits, so that their employees receive up to 100% of their normal pay during 6 weeks of parental leave. The city council of Los Angeles voted in 2019 to move ahead with a similar ordinance that will require employers to provide 18 weeks of fully paid parental leave. In 2013, Austin became the first city in the state to offer its employees 30 days of paid family leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Boston  approved a paid parental leave for its employees in 2015, and Seattle extended its paid parental leave to 12 weeks in 2017.

To address the problem of low compensation to pre-K teachers, San Antonio created in 2013 four model pre-K centers that pay their teachers substantially more than beginning K-3 teachers. The centers are funded through a special local sales tax and are strategically placed throughout the city. New York City announced in July 2019 a plan to raise pay for early childhood teachers by as much as $20,000 per year to provide parity with public school teachers of the Department of Education.

Taking it to the Next Level

Moving forward, local governments should work to establish a universal childcare system in their own jurisdiction, and support such efforts at the state or federal level. New York City has already taken a major step in this direction with its public pre-K for all 4-year-olds initiative, which show very positive outcomes. Chicago has recently launched a similar initiative to make pre-K available and free for all 4-year-olds across the city by 2021.

Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations

The following organizations provide invaluable support in pushing these issues:


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