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Want universal child care? You can’t just clone Head Start

I would know. I oversaw the program

For her universal child care proposal, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is taking inspiration from the success of the Head Start and military child care programs. But it’s not that easy, Smith writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
For her universal child care proposal, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is taking inspiration from the success of the Head Start and military child care programs. But it’s not that easy, Smith writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — A new proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to fund universal child care takes its inspiration from the success of the Head Start and military child care programs. While appealing in theory, replicating either of these systems is fraught with challenges.

I would know. I helped create the military system and later oversaw Head Start.

Instead of simply copying these models, a viable national solution should focus on the underlying principles we used to improve quality and access in both systems. Critically, in both cases, we started with an acknowledgment of what already existed and a clear vision of what needed to change and built up from there.

A federal-to-local program based on the military and Head Start models, like the one Warren proposes, misses the reality of child care in America. Bypassing the states could destabilize existing child care programs and, more important, upend the parent choice that underpins the current system and benefits very young children.

To the outsider, the military model appears to be federal-to-local, but its success hinges on the installation commanders, with oversight from major commands and military branches.

That structure isn’t easily reproduced elsewhere. Even with the Head Start model, federal regional offices play a significant role in managing the grants to local providers. Congress itself, in fact, has struggled with integrating Head Start programs into existing state and local systems, and created Head Start Collaboration offices to improve this.

So, what lessons can be learned from these two models?

Performance standards

Both designs are guided by the principle that all children served deserve quality, especially when public funds are used. That required clear and achievable standards as well as pathways to higher quality as defined by national accreditation.

Very early on, Head Start set performance standards that could be measured. When we established the military standards in 1988, they were set at the median of the state standards at the time. They have not been notably changed since.


Enforcement of standards was a core requirement from the inception of both programs. Inspections were mandatory and comprehensive, with a multi-level system of checks and balances.


The third major factor is the workforce. In both cases, the goal was to improve the knowledge and competence of the existing workforce.
Both used the Child Development Associate credential as the first goal for staff and created ways for those already working in the programs to reach it. Training is consistent, free, offered onsite and leads to higher pay. To this day, the military model is based on a mix of staff with college degrees and those who meet the credential requirements.


Parents — and children — need options. Not all children thrive in a center-based program. Family child care is a solution for many parents, and both programs provide choice while insisting on equivalent training, standards and oversight.

Parent engagement

Nearly ignored in the current debate, to my chagrin, is the role of parents.
The military system was built on the concept that child care is a shared responsibility between parents and the Defense Department. We recognized that quality child care costs more than most parents can afford, but that it nevertheless is essential to positive child outcomes. To provide this quality, the military funds the difference between what parents can afford and the true cost of quality.

Comprehensive services

The military model relies on other services provided on the installation, such as health and mental health consultation, nutrition assistance, screenings and parent education. These are also built into the Head Start model, either through direct provision or connection with community services.


Funding is a huge barrier to any comprehensive child care system. Warren’s proposal correctly acknowledges that significant resources are required to guarantee access to quality, affordable care.

The last lesson from the military and Head Start models is to understand the need and accurately project the cost to meet it. Nationally, we still lack comparable reliable data on the scope of the child care need and what it will cost to improve the current system while expanding to serve more children.

The goal of affordable, quality child care for all is laudable. But if, as a nation, we decide this is a goal worth pursuing, we have a long way to go to achieve it. We must learn from what works, but when it comes to caring for children, one size truly does not fit all.

Linda K. Smith is director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative and was a key architect of the military’s child care program.The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.