How Should States Approach Early Childhood Policy?

Published April 19, 2022

American Enterprise Institute

Key Points

  • To address the flaws in the childcare market, conservatives should place parental choice and pluralism at the forefront of their early childhood agenda.
  • Improving the market for childcare should include thinking creatively about increasing supply and embracing a wide variety of providers.
  • Instead of pursuing large-scale programs based on speculative evidence, policymakers should embrace bottom-up solutions that give parents more options.


If it had gotten its way, the Biden administration would have rebuilt the landscape of care for children during early childhood, and not for the better. All told, the passage of the legislation known as Build Back Better (BBB) would have resulted in an estimated $109 billion spent for states to provide universal prekindergarten to 3- or 4-year-olds, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

With BBB now seemingly dead, there is a real opportunity to think from first principles about how an early childhood agenda should look. Instead of a massive federal effort aimed at boosting enrollment in state-funded pre-K, states should seek to give families more choices about their children’s early childhood, recognizing the importance of putting parents first.

Expanding access to pre-K has too often become a goal in and of itself for early childhood advocates. Childcare advocacy groups often suggest plans that will benefit their own stakeholders, such as giving higher pay to childcare workers, requiring that staff have certain educational credentials, and creating additional regulations aimed at improving “quality” that serve as barriers to entry for new firms. Progressives will often justify these interventions by pointing to childcare as a long-term investment, based on studies that are far from incontrovertible. As a 2018 Vox article put it, “The benefits of early childhood education aren’t coming from the academic skills they teach students. Early childhood education helps because it’s reliable daycare.”

Conservative policymakers, especially at the state level, can offer a stark contrast by putting forward an unapologetically family-first approach to the early years of a child’s life. A parent-first approach should steer us away from universal approaches focused on “improving quality” and gauzy pictures of programs that pay for themselves—and toward the more modest (and defensible) ground of making it easier for parents who are looking for care to find a safe and loving environment for their children, whether that’s at home, a day care, a school, a church, or a community center. This requires both supply-side reforms to make it easier for providers to enter the market and demand-side reforms that give parents resources to make the choice that’s right for them.

Read the full report.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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