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Child care is infrastructure. We should treat it that way

Just as our bridges and roads are crumbling, so too are our child care options

For some parents, dropping their kids off at day care involves a leap of faith, Smith and Tracey write. Above, children run a relay race in front of the Capitol in 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
For some parents, dropping their kids off at day care involves a leap of faith, Smith and Tracey write. Above, children run a relay race in front of the Capitol in 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Millions of American parents dropped their children off at a child care facility this morning. Chances are many of those facilities don’t meet basic health and safety standards. Though we know the quality of a facility, whether a formal center or a family home care site, is directly linked to a child’s development and well-being, we also know most places are far from optimal.

This is yet another way America’s child care system is failing families today.

Recent findings have been dire. A series of surveys conducted in 2013 and 2014 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general found that 96 percent of child care programs inspected across 10 states had at least one potentially hazardous condition, such as broken or unlocked gates, water damage, or chemicals within reach of children.

In Massachusetts, a statewide study commissioned by the Children’s Investment Fund found excessive levels of carbon dioxide in child care facilities as well as insufficient ventilation systems and furnishings containing formaldehyde. Moreover, 80 percent of programs lacked classroom sinks, which can negatively affect children’s hygienic practices and infection control. Exposure to lead and other toxins has detrimental impacts on young children, yet only eight states and New York City require child care facilities to test their drinking water for lead.

Working parents, already faced with the challenges of finding and paying for high-quality child care, are frequently forced to accept a poor-quality facility because it’s the only option they have. One parent told us during a recent meeting that dropping her children off at a child care center is like “bungee jumping.” She’s right: for many, it is a leap of faith.

The country is finally having a serious conversation about how best to care for children during their first five years before they enter school. What is missing from that conversation, however, is an acknowledgement of the abysmal conditions of many of our child care facilities and a commitment to fixing the problem. Parents should be able to leave their children in child care with the understanding that they are in safe and healthy learning environments that support their development — and this is just not happening.

Luckily for these families, some states are starting to recognize the link between quality of facilities and quality of care. The Preschool Development Birth Through Five grant competition is one new opportunity for states to consider the needs of early learning programs — including facilities — to improve overall quality in their state. Over half of states address early learning facilities in their grant applications, and eight — Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, New York and Oregon — indicate that they will specifically assess facility-related needs through the 2019 grant funding.

As these states begin to identify problems with child care infrastructure, the time to raise federal awareness of the need for increased investments in child care facilities is now. The issue is especially relevant as discussions of the need to strengthen the nation’s aging infrastructure take place. Child care is an essential part of communities, allowing parents to participate in the labor force and supporting economic growth. In fact, the Committee for Economic Development found that in 2016 the child care industry in the United States produced revenue totaling $47.2 billion, with additional spillover revenue of $52.1 billion in other industries.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, working with more than 40 stakeholders across multiple sectors, developed the Early Learning Facilities Policy Framework. This framework identifies several principles that should guide policy and investments in child care facilities, including the critical importance of child care facilities to communities themselves and the national economy.

Congress must recognize that investments in child care facilities are investments in the nation’s infrastructure. To support children’s development, child care facilities need to move beyond the bare minimum — beyond “good enough” — and focus on components that can help children thrive.

The evidence is clear: child care programs across the country are facing a problem. Providers, especially those who run small center-based programs or family child care, do not have the financial resources to update, rehabilitate or expand their facilities. Furthermore, the profit margin for most child care programs is minimal at best, leaving very little room for providers to take on debt.

To move beyond the culture of low expectations, child care providers need more support. As Congress considers the entirety of the educational system from birth to post-college training, it should consider the physical assets that underlie that system. Just as our bridges and roads are crumbling, so too are our child care options. Child care facilities are a vital part of America’s communities. Let’s stop ignoring them.

Linda K. Smith is director of BPC’s Early Childhood Initiative and was a key architect of the military child care system.

Sarah Tracey is a senior policy analyst at BPC.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, 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. Website | Twitter | Facebook