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

The latest iteration of ‘Build Back Better’ doesn’t include funding for young children Biden has promised since he campaigned for president

Pennsylvania State Senator Judy Schwank visited a Pre-K Counts classroom for children ages 3-5 at the Second Street Learning Center in Reading. (Ben Hasty/Getty Images)

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Updated August 16

President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act Tuesday at the White House — a $740 billion package that took nearly a year to get through Congress. 

While it lowers health care costs, includes new tax measures and offers clean energy incentives, it left out many of the signature priorities in Biden’s original Build Back Better plan, such as universal pre-K, lowering child care costs and extending a pandemic-era child tax credit.

Early-childhood education advocates in recent weeks have harshly criticized Congress for leaving programs for young children out of the bill.

“It is a complete shame that the Senate’s Inflation Reduction Act does not include inflation-fighting funding for child care,” Michelle Kang, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said in a statement last month.

A year ago, Miriam Calderón was leading the U.S. Department of Education’s work in early-childhood, a time when $400 billion in new federal funding for programs serving young children still seemed within reach.

Now she’s working on the outside, hoping Congress passes a bill with a small fraction of that amount.

While the Senate once again inches closer to voting on what was originally President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, the recent compromise won’t include the $390 billion for child care and preschool and $190 billion for a child tax credit that the House passed last November. Biden campaigned on adding four more years to public education — two in preschool and two for free community college. So far, he’s had to back off both promises.

“There’s no sugar-coating it — it feels like a gut punch,” said Calderón, now chief policy officer at Zero to Three, an advocacy organization. “We will not have anything more equitable for children, birth to 5, without greater federal investment.”

House Democrats passed the $2 trillion package last November with the expectation that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York would secure enough votes to get it to President Joe Biden’s desk. But fiscally conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose vote is necessary in the 50-50 divided Senate, has only agreed to a smaller deal to lower health care costs, address inflation and reduce carbon emissions. For now, Biden’s pledge to pay for two years of free preschool and shrink families’ child care costs is out of the conversation.

For many in the early-childhood field, the omission is a rejection by Democrats at a time when programs are still trying to recover from staff shortages and sharp declines in enrollment wrought by the pandemic.

“When it comes to making commitments in the federal budget towards evidence-based early childhood policies, we have fallen short as a nation,” Rasheed Malik, senior director of early childhood policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said last month at a House budget committee hearing on early-childhood funding.

Republican members at the hearing panned Biden’s original proposal, saying it doesn’t prioritize “nuclear families” and includes large tax increases. Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri dismissed it as “build back broke.”

But even a scaled-down plan from Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Tim Kaine of Virginia — with $18 billion for preschool and $72 billion for child care — would have been “the largest federal investment in pre-K ever,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. Total current state spending on pre-K is less than $10 billion, he added.

Julie Kashen, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said there’s still a slim chance Manchin, who weeks ago had ruled out an agreement on climate policy, would have another change of heart. During the vote, senators will also be able to offer amendments.

“We started out at $400 billion and we are far from there,” she said. “But until the ink is dry, we keep seeing things change. They could change again.”

For now, states and advocates are moving ahead on their own without a huge federal windfall.

“We know what it looks like when [the funding] doesn’t come through. That is our history,” said Kashen, who has worked on federal child care and family support policy for more than two decades.

In New Mexico, residents will vote this November on a ballot measure that would guarantee children a right to an education — not just K-12 students, but those 5 and under as well. If the measure passes, the state would put $125 million a year toward early-childhood education, generated from fees on public lands.

In the meantime, officials are blending state and federal relief funds to make child care free for every family for the next year.

New Jersey has also tapped pandemic relief funds to upgrade preschool facilities, expand access to child care and pre-K, and support home-visiting programs, which often target low-income mothers with newborns and toddlers. Barnett said the state is wise to put relief funds primarily toward construction projects, “which will pay off for the next 30 years or more” instead of “giving one-time bonuses and other things that are transitory.”

Some states are also using relief funds for early-childhood staff raises, to support teacher mental health and pay for training, according to a National Association of State Boards of Education report issued Tuesday.

Romney’s family plan

While Manchin has said he supports universal pre-K, he argued against raising taxes to pay for Biden’s proposals during a period of high inflation. And he vowed only to support the child tax credit, which provided up to $300 per month for families with young children, if it included a work requirement for parents. Surveys show the direct payments helped families afford rent, groceries and school supplies last year.

Conservatives are now backing a similar proposal from Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, His plan would provide most families with $350 per month for children from birth to age 5 and $250 for school-age children.

Michael Petrilli, president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said educators should support the bill, saying it “has the potential to help millions of kids — especially poor and working-class children — come to school ready to learn.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who has pushed to make the Biden child tax credit permanent, tweeted that he appreciates Romney’s work on the issue. But Bennet’s staff said he splits with the Republican on details. Romney’s plan would require families to earn $10,000 in the previous year to qualify for the credit and cut another tax credit program for low-income families to pay for the credit.

Bennet, along with other Senate Democrats, such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Cory Booker of New Jersey, hope they can squeeze their plan into an end-of-the-year tax package.

Meanwhile,some Democrats are still pushing to include last-minute funding for young children in the final deal between Manchin and Schumer — now called the Inflation Reduction Act — before the Senate is expected to break for recess next week.

“The simple reality is that if we don’t act now, the child care crisis will only get worse,” Murray said in a statement Thursday. “As we fight inflation, we must help parents find and afford the child care they need so they can get back to work, and help child care providers stay in business.”

In his comments, Biden promised to “keep fighting” for lower preschool and child care costs.

“This bill is far from perfect. It’s a compromise,” he said. “But it’s often how progress is made: by compromises.”

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