‘Like A Gut Punch’: Advocates Reel As Manchin Compromise Abandons Pre-K

‘Like a Gut Punch’: Advocates Reel as Manchin Compromise Abandons Pre-K

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Updated on August 16.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act at the White House. This $740 billion package has taken almost a year to pass through Congress. While it does bring down healthcare costs, introduces new tax measures, and offers clean energy incentives, it misses out on many key priorities from Biden’s original Build Back Better plan. This includes universal pre-K, reducing child care expenses, and extending a child tax credit that was introduced during the pandemic.

Advocates for early childhood education have recently criticized Congress for leaving out programs for young children in this bill. Michelle Kang, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, expressed her disappointment, stating that the Senate’s Inflation Reduction Act fails to provide funding to combat inflation in child care.

Miriam Calderón, who previously led the U.S. Department of Education’s work in early childhood, was optimistic a year ago when there was hope for $400 billion in federal funding for programs benefiting young children. However, she is now working outside the Department, hoping that Congress will pass a bill with a much smaller amount.

Although the Senate is moving closer to voting on President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, this compromise does not include the $390 billion allocated for child care and preschool, nor the $190 billion for a child tax credit that was approved by the House last November. Biden had promised to add four additional years to public education, two of which were for preschool and two for free community college. Unfortunately, he has had to backtrack on these promises.

Miriam Calderón, who is now the chief policy officer at Zero to Three, an advocacy organization, expressed her disappointment, stating, "There’s no way to sugar-coat it – it feels like a devastating blow. We will not achieve greater equity for children from birth to 5 without increased federal investment."

The House Democrats passed a $2 trillion package in November, with hopes that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would secure enough votes to bring it to President Biden’s desk. However, Senator Joe Manchin, a fiscally conservative Democrat whose vote is crucial in the evenly divided Senate, has only agreed to a smaller deal focused on reducing healthcare costs, addressing inflation, and lowering carbon emissions. As a result, Biden’s plans for two years of free preschool and reduced child care costs have been excluded from the discussion.

For many individuals in the early childhood field, this omission is seen as a rejection by Democrats. This comes at a time when programs are still recovering from staff shortages and significant declines in enrollment caused by the pandemic. Rasheed Malik, senior director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, criticized the nation for falling short in its commitment to evidence-based early childhood policies during a House budget committee hearing on early childhood funding.

Republican members at the hearing criticized Biden’s original proposal, claiming it does not prioritize traditional nuclear families and includes substantial tax increases. Representative Jason Smith from Missouri dismissed it as "build back broke."

Even a scaled-down plan proposed by Senators Patty Murray and Tim Kaine, which allocated $18 billion for preschool and $72 billion for child care, would have represented "the largest federal investment in pre-K ever," according to Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. Currently, state spending on pre-K is less than $10 billion.

Julie Kashen, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, believes there is still a slight chance that Senator Manchin, who previously ruled out an agreement on climate policy, may have a change of heart. Senators will also have the opportunity to propose amendments during the voting process.

Kashen stated, "We initially started with $400 billion, and we are still far from that. However, until everything is finalized, we may continue to see changes. They could change again."

In the meantime, states and advocates are proceeding without a substantial federal windfall.

Residents in New Mexico will have the opportunity to vote in November on a ballot measure that aims to secure the right to education for children, including those aged 5 and below. If the measure passes, the state will allocate $125 million per year from fees on public lands towards early-childhood education.

Meanwhile, officials are utilizing state and federal relief funds to offer free child care for all families for the next year.

In New Jersey, pandemic relief funds are being used to improve preschool facilities, expand access to child care and pre-K programs, and provide support for home-visiting programs that target low-income mothers with infants and young children. This approach, focusing on construction projects and long-term investments, is seen as more beneficial than providing one-time bonuses and temporary solutions, according to Barnett, an expert in the field.

Some states are also utilizing relief funds to increase salaries for early-childhood staff, support teacher mental health, and provide training, as reported by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

While Senator Manchin expressed support for universal pre-K, he opposes raising taxes to fund President Biden’s proposals due to concerns about high inflation. He would only support the child tax credit if it includes a work requirement for parents. The direct payments from the child tax credit have been proven to assist families in affording essential expenses like housing, groceries, and school supplies.

Conservatives, including Senator Mitt Romney, have proposed a similar plan that would provide monthly payments of $350 for children aged 0-5 and $250 for school-age children. Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning organization, suggested that educators should support this plan as it has the potential to benefit millions of economically disadvantaged children.

Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, has been advocating for making the Biden child tax credit permanent and expressed his appreciation for Romney’s work on the issue. However, there are differences between Bennet and Romney regarding the eligibility criteria and funding sources for the credit.

Bennet and other Senate Democrats, including Senators Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker, hope to include their plan in an end-of-year tax package.

Some Democrats are urging for last-minute funding for young children in the final deal between Senators Manchin and Schumer, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, before the Senate recesses next week. This is in response to the growing child care crisis, with the aim of assisting parents in finding affordable child care and supporting child care providers.

President Biden reiterated his commitment to reducing preschool and child care costs and vowed to continue advocating for them.

While acknowledging that the bill is not perfect, Biden emphasized the importance of compromise in making progress.


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