A new proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren to fund universal child care takes its inspiration from the success of the Head Start and military child care programs. While appealing in theory, replicating either of these systems is fraught with challenges.
I would know. I helped create the military system and later oversaw Head Start.
Instead of simply copying these models, a national solution should focus on the underlying principles we used to improve quality and access in both systems.
A federal-to-local program, like the one Warren proposes, misses the reality of child care in America. Bypassing the states could destabilize existing programs and upend the parent choice that underpins the current system and benefits very young children.
The military model appears to be federal-to-local, but its success hinges on the installation commanders, with oversight from major commands and military branches.
That structure isn’t easily reproduced elsewhere. Even with the Head Start model, regional offices play a significant role in managing grants to local providers. Congress itself has struggled with integrating Head Start into state and local systems, and created Head Start Collaboration offices to improve this.
So, what lessons can be learned from these two models?
Both dare guided by the principle that all children served deserve quality, especially when public funds are used.
Head Start set performance standards that could be measured. When we established the military standards in 1988, they were set at the median of the state standards at the time. They have not been changed since.
Enforcement of standards was a core requirement from the inception of both programs. Inspections were mandatory and comprehensive, with a multi-level system of checks and balances.
The third major factor is the workforce. In both cases, the goal was to improve the knowledge and competence of existing workforce. Both used the Child Development Associate credential. Training is consistent, free, offered onsite and leads to higher pay. To this day, the military model is based on a mix of staff with college degrees and those who meet credential requirements.
Parents — and children — need options. Not all children thrive in a center-based program. Family child care is a solution for many parents, and programs provide choice while insisting on equivalent training, standards and oversight.
The military system was built on the concept that child care is a shared responsibility between parents and the Defense Department. We recognized that quality child care costs more than most parents can afford, but is essential. To provide quality, the military funds the difference between what parents can afford and the true cost of quality.
The military model relies on other services provided on the installation, such as health and mental health consultation, nutrition assistance, screenings and parent education. These are also built into the Head Start model.
Warren’s proposal correctly acknowledges that significant resources are required to guarantee access to quality, affordable care.
The last lesson from the military and Head Start models is to understand the need and accurately project the cost to meet it. Nationally, we still lack comparable reliable data on the scope of the child care need and what it will cost to improve the system while expanding to serve more children.
The goal of affordable, quality child care for all is laudable. But if, as a nation, we decide this is a goal worth pursuing, we have a long way to go. We must learn from what works, but when it comes to caring for children, one size truly does not fit all.