Opinion by Casey Stockstill: Preschool will become a luxury if Congress doesn’t act

This University Press Week, NYU Press is highlighting an author who knows when to #SpeakUP. This opinion piece by Casey Stockstill is reposted from MSNBC.com

Cover of "False Starts: The Segregated Lives of Preschoolers" by Casey Stockstill. Photograph of a preschool classroom, the left half of the photograph is black and white and the right half is in color.

On Sept. 30, $24 billion in stimulus money that helped child care programs survive expired. That means poor children, including a disproportionate number who are of color, are losing access to preschool and the learning experiences that preschool brings.

Preschools are highly segregated, often clustering poor children of color in some schools and middle-class white children in others. But as we’ve long known, separate is not equal. I saw the disparities up close in the two years of research I did for my book “False Starts: The Segregated Lives of Preschoolers.” In the majority-poor preschool I observed in Madison, Wisconsin, multiple challenges of poverty converged. Some children were placed in foster care. Some parents were incarcerated. Some families were evicted from their homes. All those factors resulted in stress to children that bled into their behavior at preschool.

Many middle-income families have already been struggling to access preschool.

Now that the funding to help child care centers has expired, preschools have two levers to pull: They can raise tuition, or they can reduce teacher pay. But the community a preschool serves helps determine which lever a particular preschool can pull.

Raising tuition is a more viable strategy for preschools serving affluent families. At a center I observed called Great Beginnings, parents who were mostly white and affluent paid a preschool tuition that was 20% more than the average preschool tuition in that city. On top of that, they also paid fees for activities such as soccer, dance and swimming for their 4-year-olds. Several children at Great Beginnings had been to Disney World multiple times in their short lives. For most of these families, a tuition hike would be a begrudged inconvenience.

But poor families don’t have access to Great Beginnings. Nine out of 10 poor families are stuck on waitlists for child care subsidies. These poor families cluster in preschools that accommodate lower-income families by charging them less for tuition than the preschool needs to charge to provide good care. If these majority-poor preschools raise tuition, then their families will have to leave, and the preschools may be forced to close.

Higher-poverty preschools also have less leeway to cut teacher pay. Their teachers are already underpaid. One of the teachers I met during my research was Ms. Roxanne. She was warm, responsive and experienced but consistently experiencing high job stress. She told me, “Some days are hard, like with jumping off tables, cussing. … I knew with most of the kids that it was coming from the stress in their life.” On top of the stress of teaching, Ms. Roxanne worked a seasonal retail job to supplement her low pay as a teacher.

In what was a loss for the children at that high-poverty preschool, Ms. Roxanne left for a job at a preschool with less family disadvantage and less stress. The child care industry is still 40,000 teachers short, and teachers consider the balance of job stress and pay when they have many options for employment. The end of the federal funding helping child care centers may mean fewer teachers like Ms. Roxanne work at the schools that need them the most. 

If we want a system where preschool is a luxury for the rich, then no action is necessary.

How will middle-income families be affected? Many middle-income families have already been struggling to access preschool. Such families cannot afford the already high fees at places like Great Beginnings, but they don’t qualify for subsidies. As a mom of three young children, I experienced this myself. When we had our second child, my husband and I used unlicensed child care because it was all we could afford. When our third child arrived, my husband reluctantly quit his beloved job at a high school. Child care costs would have outstripped his income and left our family with a financial deficit each month.

Photograph of author Casey Stockstill.

If the funding cliff causes more affordable preschools to close, then middle-income families will also be worse off. Middle-income families need the same thing affluent and poor families do: a serious, federal investment in early learning that supports a range of preschool options.

If we want a system where preschool is a luxury for the rich, then no action is necessary.

But I propose a more equitable path. Legislators created the current, segregated landscape of preschools by systematically refusing to invest in early learning. Legislators can fix this problem, and a Democratic proposal called the Child Care Stabilization Act would help. Preschools need a funding life raft while we build a robust, universal child care system that creates enriching learning environments for all children.

Casey Stockstill is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dartmouth College.

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