Early Childhood Districts: A Capita Symposium

Published on September 8, 2021


Last month Capita published a new white paper by policy expert Elliot Haspel in which he proposes “early childhood districts.” Elliot envisions these districts as the counterpart to public school districts for children five and under, but adapted to the early childhood context, and learning from the inequities found in the K-12 system.

In order to help us think more deeply about this novel proposal and to foster its prudent development, we have commissioned several other experts to contribute to a written symposium to critique and to caution, and to make recommendations about where next to take this proposal.

The symposium’s first essay is by EPPC Fellow Patrick T. Brown.

In his book Crawling Behind, Elliot Haspel laid out a comprehensive argument for universal, free child care. His new white paper calling for the creation of Early Childhood Districts [ECDs] is a thoughtful, though I think flawed, attempt at making his larger goal more achievable.

I should show my cards up front – it is difficult for me to look at the existing public education system and recommend it as a model for ensuring high-quality child care for newborns, toddlers, and preschoolers. Most school districts reflect the wealth of their local tax base, contributing to achievement gaps. Haspel suggests that ECDs would avoid the geography-based inequalities that plague the K-12 public school system, while at the same time layering them onto “existing, extremely well-known governmental boundaries.” Just as school quality is capitalized into house prices, it seems difficult to imagine a world in which the quality of an early childhood district does not also end up correlated with existing advantage, especially given the understandable preference parents have for care located near their home.

Haspel admits localities should have some skin in the game, but would argue the equity concerns would be allayed by having nine out of every ten dollars come from federal or state sources. If that were the case, however, ECDs seem more likely to soak up resources than guide their use more effectively. He perceptively nods to the potential of regulatory capture by stipulating that ECDs be staffed “leanly,” so as to avoid replicating the “overly bureaucratic nature” of the K-12 system. But one can already hear the cries of underfunding echoing in future ECD districts as they do in current K-12 ones. A new middle layer of bureaucracy seems as likely to end up playing the role of a self-interested stakeholder as one of benign facilitator.

Haspel’s proposal is extremely flexible, which is a strength. But that wide latitude leaves the door open to massive, open-ended spending commitments and government overreach. Potentially granting ECDs taxation authority while also guaranteeing child care workers’ salaries could cause costs to balloon. And his more expansive vision to “bring all child care programs…under the district umbrella” would lay the groundwork for a dramatic crowding-out of private child care provision. He pledges that the assimilation would be “voluntary but would provide tremendous benefits,” leaving faith-based child care providers, or those that want to provide a culturally-distinctive environment, operating at a disadvantage. My preference would be to see states or counties favoring an explicitly pluralist approach to child care infrastructure, rather than gently coercing alternate entities to effectively become arms of the state.

I was intrigued to imagine what Haspel’s proposal would look like in the absence of federal action. Much of the ECDs’ presumed benefit to parents would rely on drawing on additional federal dollars (such as the limit on parents’ out-of-pocket spending.) But what if that money never arrives? Many of the functions Haspel proposes for an ECD, like a common pool of substitutes or bulk purchasing, could be achieved through greater public-private collaboration, or a state-funded consortium structured to avoid conflicts with anti-trust law. Integrating home visiting programs and other community-based services into a full-service family life department could be a valuable pilot project. As his helpful use of real-world examples suggests, these kind of innovations could be undertaken by an innovative state or county without having to construct the apparatus of an ECD.

Haspel is, of course, exactly right to want to address the shortcomings in how parents find child care in the U.S., a sector plagued by information asymmetries and market failures. There is clearly a sound rationale for states to take some of the actions he gestures to, such as regulating price transparency or operating centralized databases of open seats and available tuition credits.

Layering on another level of bureaucracy, however, would replicate some of the worst of the K-12 district model without necessarily improving the situation facing parents. His proposal is an intriguing path for anyone who believes the U.S. needs a universal, welfare-state provision of early childhood. But for the unconvinced, it is a reminder that the unavoidable difficulties in implementing such a scheme is yet another reason for skepticism.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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