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Report is a Look Back at Federal Early Childcare Policy

Washington, D.C. — When federal policy first turned its attention to early childcare in 1935, the aim was to promote the healthy development of poor children and give them a chance to succeed; fast-forward to today and federal early care and education policies have become fragmented, inefficient, and unnecessarily complex.

In this new report, AEI scholar Katharine B. Stevens traces the history of federal early childcare policy and its three major funding streams —the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Head Start—in order to better understand current policy and how it can be improved. Her major findings include:

  • Federal policy has evolved to reinforce a counterproductive, false distinction between “custodial” and “developmental” care for children. All programs for children from birth through age four have two important functions: supporting the work of parents in a 24/7 economy and fostering the healthy growth and learning of children during the most crucial period of human development. Current policy fails to recognize that those two aims are complementary, equally important strategies for building human capital in our nation’s most disadvantaged communities.
  • As early nurture and care have been deemphasized, formal education through the public schools has come to dominate public and policy attention as the leading strategy to improve the well-being of poor children. Initiated by the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary School Act and the establishment of Head Start 50 years ago, this is most recently reflected in today’s accelerating push for public pre-K.
  • Our concept of child well-being has devolved to a narrow focus on children’s economic status and cognitive skills. The technocratic aims of increasing family income and children’s test scores have largely eclipsed a broader, once-held goal of advancing the overall welfare and life chances of poor children.

Read the full report: Renewing childhood’s promise: The history and future of federal early care and education policy.

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