Free Child Care and Pre-K for All


Free Child Care and Pre-K for All

Other countries around the world understand the importance of child care, early education, and family leave. It is long past time for the United States to join them.

Bernie Signature


Our current child care and early education system in the United States is an international embarrassment. Today in America, we have a totally dysfunctional child care and pre-kindergarten system that is failing our children, our parents, and our child care and early education workers. Not only is our child care infrastructure and access to high-quality care and early learning lacking throughout the country, child care is unaffordable in every single state in America.

For parents all over the country, taking time off or working fewer hours to care for their children is simply not an option. That leads many families to spend a disproportionate amount of their income to cover the cost of child care and early education. The Department of Health and Human Services qualifies “affordable child care” as costing no more than 7 percent of a family’s income, but families are spending between 9 and 22 percent of their income on child care on average. For low-income families, the burden is even higher: a full 35 percent of their income goes toward child care. And when it comes to the proportion of income spent on child care, single parents spend more than double what married parents spend. The high cost of care also pushes parents who may want to work part-time or stay home with their children to work more hours and spend more time away from their family.

The astronomical cost of this failed system has hit vulnerable and marginalized families the hardest. Parents who leave work or work fewer hours to take care of their children lose out on about $30 to 35 billion in income. A majority of Black and Latina mothers report being passed up for promotions, working fewer hours, or making other career sacrifices in order to care for their children. Those who can pay for care and education are having an increasingly difficult time finding affordable options; 80 percent of families with young children have a hard time finding quality child care at a cost they can afford.

All over the country, families are struggling under the cost of child care. Today, caring for children in America is so outrageously expensive that having children is a leading cause of poverty in the United States. Bernie believes that no family should be pushed into poverty for the “crime” of making sure their children are cared for and safe.

Ensuring that our youngest children have access to early care and education is a family responsibility, yet often the responsibility of caring for children and making the sacrifices necessary to do so does falls on mothers. Today, women make up half of our workforce and head 41 percent of households, and yet our child care system has not kept up with these realities. According to a survey conducted last year, more than half of mothers worked fewer hours to save on child care costs, and a quarter of moms left the workforce entirely to care for their children. The burden of child care costs falls especially hard upon women of color. Systemic racism in our early education system has meant Black and Latina mothers have a more difficult time finding affordable child care than white mothers. Single moms, for whom child care is often a necessity, pay much larger proportions of their income toward child care compared to married couples. In general, mothers are 40 percent more likely than fathers to report a negative impact on their career outcomes due to child care considerations.

Our current means-tested federal programs, like the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) and Head Start, are woefully underfunded and fail to reach all eligible families. Funds from CCDBG, the largest source of child care assistance and child care subsidies for low-income families, only make it to 15 percent of eligible families. Head Start, an early education program, only serves about one-third of eligible young children. The problem with these programs is not that they don’t work, but that they don’t reach all the families who need it. Our means-tested system has created racially and economically segregated child care and pre-k in this country. Only a fraction of low-income families who need assistance paying for child care receive it, leaving out the vast majority of eligible low-income and middle-class families for whom early care and education is unaffordable. Children of color experience higher rates of poverty and are faced with the long-term impacts of early childhood poverty.

Our dysfunctional system punishes the people who take care of, nurture, and educate our youngest children. Child care workers, on average, make just $11 an hour despite the skyrocketing costs of child care and early education. Even though they take on the most important job in America of caring for our children, child care workers – 96 percent of whom are women and are disproportionately women of color – are paid starvation wages.

That is unacceptable. It is immoral. And it is un-American. In the richest country in the history of the world, we have a moral responsibility as a nation to guarantee high-quality care and education for every single child, regardless of background or family income. We owe it to our children, parents, and child care workers to do much better. We must make sure that children are cared for, parents are supported, and child care workers are treated well and compensated fairly. When Bernie is president, we will ensure that access to high-quality, free child care and universal, full-day pre-k is guaranteed for all families who want and need early care and educational opportunities for their young children. This is part of a comprehensive approach to enacting real family values in the United States that includes providing all parents with six months of paid family leave, paid sick time, and paid vacation so they can spend time with their children.

Trump provided over $1 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1 percent and the most profitable corporations in America. We will do the exact opposite. We will demand that the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations in America pay their fair share of taxes. By taxing the extreme wealth of the top 0.1 percent, we can invest $1.5 trillion over the next decade on guaranteeing free, universal, quality child care and early education for all. And unlike Trump’s tax cuts, investing in our children actually pays for itself: for every $1 we invest in pre-kindergarten, we see an economic return as high as $17.

With this plan, we will substantially reduce the massive level of wealth inequality in America, create new and good jobs, enable parents to more easily balance the demands of work and home, and give our children the best chance at leading healthy, happy lives. This plan will act as a raise of thousands of dollars for working families, and offer flexibility for those who want to work more, those who want to work less, and those working irregular or inflexible hours. It will invest in those doing some of our most important work, providing living wages, benefits, and strengthening collective bargaining rights for child care and early education professionals. And, for our children, it will provide crucial developmental and educational benefits from birth. Other countries around the world understand the importance of child care, early education, and family leave. It is long past time for the United States to join them.

Free, High-Quality Child Care and Pre-Kindergarten

As the wealthiest country in the history of the world, providing universal child care and pre-K is something we can and should do. Every psychologist in the world knows that ages 0 through 4 are the most important years of human life intellectually and emotionally. It should come as no surprise to learn that when children have early care and education, they perform better throughout school, are less likely to interact with the criminal justice system, and report higher earnings later in life and increased overall happiness. The benefits of high-quality care and early childhood education for children’s wellbeing is well-established. But for so many children in this country, their race, immigration status, income level, parents’ level of education, and the place they just happened to be born determines their access and quality of care and education. In 2017, about 34 percent of children whose parents held a bachelor’s degree or higher attended a full-day pre-kindergarten, while only 18 percent of children whose parents had less than a high school degree attended full-day pre-k. And children from families with higher incomes not only were enrolled in full-day preschools at higher rates, they also were twice as likely to use licensed child care facilities, meaning they received better quality care. For 60 percent of families living in rural America, access to child care is limited or practically nonexistent. According to a new analysis, 68 percent of parents with children with disabilities, either were not able to find or struggled to find child care for their children.

For parents, this program means no more hassle of finding an affordable provider in your area and no more waitlists for programs. If you are a parent, your child will be guaranteed a spot in child care and pre-k in your community, free of charge, taught and under the supervision of qualified professionals who are paid the wages they deserve. It will be as straightforward as dropping your child off at school. For the parents across the country paying thousands of dollars for child care every year, this will mean those dollars stay in your wallet instead of paying for the outrageous cost of child care.

In the 21st century, a free public education system that goes from kindergarten through high school is no longer good enough. We will guarantee a quality education, from child care through college, as a right to all.

As president, Bernie will:

  • Guarantee every child in America free full-day, full-week, high-quality child care from infancy through age three, regardless of income.
    • Provide child care at least 10 hours a day and ensure programs operate at times to serve parents who work non-traditional hours.
    • Building off the success of the existing federal child care programs, the universal free child care program will be funded by the federal government and administered by state agencies and tribal governments in cooperation and in collaboration with public school districts, and other relevant agencies and organizations. The federal funding will cover the full cost of child care services and pay for the workers as well as capital expenses.
    • As a condition of funding, the federal government will set quality standards for the program, including minimum wages for workers and mandated low child-to-adult ratios and small group sizes for delivery of services.
  • Guarantee every child access to a full-day, full-week pre-kindergarten education, regardless of income, starting at age 3.
    • Free, universal pre-kindergarten will be funded in full by the federal government, and be locally administered.
  • Ensure the resources, rights and expertise are provided to children with disabilities. We will ensure students with disabilities receive the support they need and are included with their peers from an early age.
    • Require the Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services to develop federal standards for ensuring that all federally-funded child care settings include children with disabilities and do not discriminate on the basis of disability.
    • Expand funding within the Institute for Education Sciences for research on how early childhood professionals can best support children with disabilities, including those with significant cognitive disabilities and complex medical needs, in natural environments and inclusive early childhood education settings.
    • Ensure that students with disabilities who need it get access to Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) technology and the services necessary to make it meaningful from a young age. This will include issuing new guidance through the Department of Education to ensure that students who receive an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device through their school are able to keep it outside of school hours as well as if they change districts.
    • Invest in new technical assistance resources within the Department of Education to support general education teachers in helping children with disabilities develop pre-literacy and literacy skills in general education classrooms.
  • Double funding for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program, which supports home visiting services from nurses, mental health professionals, social workers, and other support professionals for families with young children who live in low-income and at-risk communities.
  • Pass Bernie’s Universal School Meals Act that he introduced with Rep. Ilhan Omar to provide year-round, free universal school meals – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks – to every child in child care and pre-k.
  • Construct, renovate, or rehabilitate the child care facilities and pre-schools we need throughout the country.
    • Ensure that small centers and home-based child care operations can apply for this funding for upgrades and renovations.
  • Enact Bernie’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education to make transformative investments in our public education system to ensure the developmental gains made by implementing universal child care and pre-k are built upon when children start their K-12 education and:
    • Substantially reduce pre-school class sizes.
    • Increase access to English as a Second Language instruction.
    • Ensure children have access to health and wellness services.
    • Desegregate our entire public education system, including child care and pre-kindergarten.
    • Spend $50 billion over the next decade to substantially expand access to summer and after-school programs, teen centers and tutoring.

Supporting Our Child Care and Early Education Workforce

There is no more important job in America than taking care of, nurturing, and educating our youngest children. Today’s infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are the future of our country. Despite the skyrocketing costs of child care and early education, child care workers, on average, make just $11 an hour. Even though they take on the most important job in America - caring for our children - child care workers, 96 percent of whom are women and are disproportionately women of color, are paid starvation wages.

In 2015, nearly 15 percent of child care workers lived in poverty, compared to about 7 percent of workers in other occupations. Child care workers cannot even afford care for their own children. Many ECE workers who would like to stay in the profession simply cannot afford to do it. Increasing the compensation of those that work with our youngest children benefits all children and families, as fair compensation can reduce teacher turnover and help attract additional high-quality talent to this important field. If we are serious about investing in our children’s futures, we have to do better for those who care for our children.

Furthermore, child care and early education jobs are green jobs. Caring for and educating our children are essential components of creating a socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable future. As we transform our energy system and our economy to combat the threat of climate change, ensuring that these critical, low-carbon care and education jobs are well-paid and secure must be a priority. 

When Bernie is president, we will invest in our child care workers and pay them a living wage, provide strong benefits, and make it easier for them to join unions and bargain collectively for a better life. When front line child care workers can join together in unions, they not only improve their own lives but help raise quality standards and ensure the industry works for parents and kids as well.

As president, Bernie will:

  • More than double the number of early childhood educators in this country from more than 1.3 million to more than 2.6 million.  
  • Guarantee everyone working in the field of early education a living wage, ensure all are compensated commensurate with their experience and training, and ensure all lead teachers are paid no less than similarly qualified kindergarten teachers.
  • Require anyone providing direct service to young children have at least child a Child Development Associates (CDA) credential, require all assistant teachers have at least an Associate’s Degree in early childhood education or child development, and require all lead preschool teachers have a Bachelor's degree in early childhood education or child development.
  • Guarantee support for existing and new early care and learning professionals to get the education required to care for and teach young children, within a reasonable phase-in period, and ensure that these professionals reflect the cultural, linguistic, racial and ethnic diversity of the communities they serve.
    • Make public colleges tuition- and debt-free, invest $5 billion in high-quality teacher preparation programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Minority Serving Institutions of higher education (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges, like residency program that provide clinical experience and mentoring, and increase other higher education supports that enable students to afford the high-quality preparation necessary to support the development and learning of young children.
    • Provide funding for union training fund programs to ensure early care and learning professionals can receive training through these successful programs.
  • Ensure that all early childhood educators have access to ongoing high-quality professional development that includes coaching and mentoring.
  • Provide early childhood workers with strong protections for unionizing, sector-wide collective bargaining, workers’ rights, workplace safety, and fair scheduling, regardless of immigration status, and that they have the information and tools they need to act on these rights and protections through the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and enacting Bernie’s Workplace Democracy plan.