The massive and historic entitlement-and-spending bill, Build Back Better (H.R. 5376), includes the “largest expansion” of government education since public high schools were established by the states more than “100 years ago,” according to President Biden. The bill was passed by the House at the end of November and is now the intense focus of the Democrat Senate and the Biden administration for passage before Christmas.
Under the proposed legislation, the federal government would expand and then regulate not just public education but a good portion of what heretofore has been family-based education, and not just “education” as has been normally understood, but pre-school “child care,” including from “birth,” essentially child rearing.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has rightly said this would be “transformative” of the country. A major and much-repeated purpose of the bill is to increase the employment of women who, according to President Biden, are prevented from working because they “can’t afford the cost of childcare.”
The child care and early education part of Build Back Better has three parts. It creates a new free-to-all “universal preschool” entitlement for three- and four-year-olds. It also inaugurates a likewise unprecedented “child care entitlement” for children from birth until six years. And it establishes a guaranteed income for parents, up to and including those in the middle class. There has been almost no public discussion of these transformative provisions; along with other substantive changes in various laws, all are buried with no development or explanation in bare-bones references in the bill.
Some perspective is needed about where American kids are before first grade. Today, although 86 percent of five-year-olds are enrolled in kindergarten, only 48 percent of 3- to 4-year-olds are enrolled in formal pre-K programs, according to 2019 pre-pandemic statistics of the National Center for Education Statistics.
According to a survey in 2021 of parents of 5-year-old children, 53 percent had their children in “formal child care,” 34 percent were cared for by their parents, and 10 percent were under the care of others. Of the minority of families who use center-based daycare, 53 percent do so at religious centers or schools, according to a 2020 survey.
Proposed New Universal Preschool Program
Under Build Back Better, the federal government would be creating a new and nationwide educational institution: “universal preschool.”
An eligible child for universal preschool is a child who is age 3 or 4. A majority of those children are not currently placed in institutional or school-like settings. “Eligible providers” (§ 23002 of the bill) of preschool services are public schools, Head Start, and others that are “licensed.” Thus, centers provided by religious groups who refuse to be licensed would not be eligible, and the 53 percent of parents whose daycare centers are based at a church, synagogue, or mosque would be denied this option.
Each participating state must submit a state plan that is “universal, high-quality, free, inclusive, and mixed-delivery pre-school services” and “approved” by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
There is no income test for parents: it is “universal” for “all children.” (The new child-care entitlement, below, has income standards.) The states that get federal funds must prioritize “expanding universal local preschool programs” in high-need communities. Federal civil rights law apply. It will be administered and regulated jointly by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services (HHS).
Each state’s preschool system shall provide “age-appropriate transportation services.” School busing for three-year-olds? Preschools must provide at least 1,020 annual hours, that is, the nine-month school year.
An overall goal of the federal program will be “expanding universal preschool programs” across the country. In awarding grants and contracts, a state must prefer those organizations that are committed to expanding preschool for high-need communities. A state may not reduce preschool enrollment that it funds with state funds, thereby ensuring that states will not use federal funds to replace their own expenditures.
Special attention must be given to the “policies and practices” that affect the enrollment of kids in foster care, kids of migrant and seasonal agriculture workers, children with disabilities, dual language learners, and “homeless” kids, which brings up the question of whether public schools or other providers must also provide residences or round-the-clock care for those children.
In order to avoid an honest statement of the permanent and long-term cost to the federal treasury (and state treasuries) of the new program, the legislation deceptively establishes the program only for five years. Of course and more than obviously, once established, universal pre-school will be impossible to repeal and will be permanent.
An apt comparison can be made to the voluntary state participation in the expansion of Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) passed in 2010. Twelve states still have not participated and thus have avoided the necessary state appropriations needed to match the federal appropriations as well as the ancillary federal regulation.
In Build Back Better, in non-participating states that do not adopt “state plans” for the new universal preschool, the state legislatures may be bypassed and federal funds paid directly to cities, counties, and Head Start agencies. Thus, the federal government, having learned its lesson with Medicaid, will rule with or without the state legislatures.
New ‘Birth through Five Child Care’ Program
Build Back Better would also establish a brand new federal “child care and early learning entitlement program” for kids “birth through five,” with special provisions for “infants and toddlers” (§ 23001 of the bill). It would be in addition to universal preschool, but it is not an educational program. It is “child care” but such care will include “learning.”
Participating states or localities that adopt the new federal program would provide “child care certificates” to eligible parents of every eligible child to pay the cost of child care at “eligible child care providers.” Economically eligible parents include all parents, employed, unemployed (“job searching” or “training”), or in school, with children aged five and below who are not in kindergarten. (See income restrictions below.)
The “child care certificates” issued by states would be used by parents to pay locally or state-licensed private “child care providers.” Providers may be child care centers, profit and non-profit, and “family child care providers” at private residences. These providers would be private parties, not public schools or government agencies.
The family providers would include “sectarian child care services.” However, church-based child care centers and homes receiving federal “child care certificates” would be receiving “federal financial assistance” and thus, be subject to federal regulation (§2301(a)). Public funds would be available for construction of and capital improvements to child care facilities, but not to those “that are used primarily for sectarian instruction or religious worship,” thereby creating an incentive for parents to use the better-endowed centers. The entitlement program would be administered by HHS, and federal money would go directly to state governments.
All eligible child care providers must not only be state or locally licensed but would also be subject to a long list of health, safety, and building regulations. “Infants and toddlers” are to be prioritized. The bill specifically requires that the hours that providers could offer their services would not be restricted to school or daytime hours, thus accommodating parents who work at night. And in some cases, it could include 24-hours-per-day care.
Like the universal preschool entitlement, and as a means of getting around “nonparticipating” state legislatures that might reject this new entitlement, the bill provides for grants directly to local governments and for increases in the federal Head Start program. Head Start and Early Head Start would also be expanded in non-participating states.
For fiscal year 2022, the program would be restricted to parents whose family income is not higher than the state median income, with gradual increases until by fiscal year 2027, until all parents with income up to 250 percent of each state’s median would be eligible, which essentially means that all parents except the wealthiest will get federal/state-funded daycare as an entitlement.
Guaranteed Income for Parents
Build Back Better’s vast expansion of the current child tax credit would essentially become a guaranteed income for parents based on dependent children.
The pandemic-stimulus American Rescue Plan enacted by Congress in March 2021 not only increased the tax credit that parents get for each child on their yearly federal income taxes, it also changed the tax “credit” to a direct IRS first-time-ever monthly “refundable” payment of $300 per younger child and $250 for an older child for six months, that is, through the end of this year. Prior to the Rescue Plan, taxpayers with up to $112,000 annual income and joint filers of $150,000 annual income have been receiving refund payments every month since July 1.
The new Child Tax Credit (§ 137101) of the House-passed Build Back Better bill would add another year, 2022, to the Rescue Plan’s practice of making monthly refundable payments directly to qualified taxpayers. It also makes refundability, that is, monthly direct payments, permanent. And being a “taxpayer” will no longer matter; parents of low or no income will receive monthly per-child payments. It will be a guaranteed income based on the number of children a parent has.
In addition, children illegally in the country could be claimed under the new child tax credit because Build Back Better repeals current law that requires parents to identity each claimed child by the child’s social security number.
The Institutionalization of Kids
Overall, then, with two new educational and child-care institutions that are unprecedented in American history and government, the federal government would be taking a decisive step in controlling an additional aspect of American life — the rearing of infants and toddlers.
Poor and middle-class parents who don’t want comprehensive institutionalized daycare will be put under strong financial incentives to enroll their kids in the new federal child-care system. First, of course, it will be their tax money that is supporting the system. Secondly, it will be difficult to resist the multi-faceted conveniences and services that the federal monopoly will offer. It will definitely increase the labor-force participation of women.
It would be a complete contradiction for the federal government to set up these governmental institutions and then not control them. Indeed, as described in detail above, federal approval and regulation of every element of early education — hours, curriculum, facilities, staff, etc. — is certain. And with respect to the two fierce controversies that are roiling elementary and secondary education everywhere in the country, will the federal government promote race theory and genderism in preschool?
Daycare has greatly increased in recent decades. Build Back Better is the next step in the increasing institutionalization of small children. In the 39 pages of the Build Back Better bill laying out the federal government’s detailed plans and prescriptions for “universal preschool,” the word “parent” never appears.