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Childcare and Pre-K

The federal government began to subsidize child care for low-income families in 1990, via the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG, now part of a set of programs called the Child and Development Fund). The CCDBG program sends federal funds to states, who use it to pay for child care in two distinct ways.

Funding and the Future of Pre-K

Grant and contract funding. A state’s child care agency uses some of the money to pay child care providers via the award of grants or contracts, funds that subsidize the cost of the care. Faith-based providers are eligible for these grants and contracts, termed “direct” government funding, but have to accept significant restrictions as well:  the government-supported child care has to be religion-free and staff must be hired without regard to their religious convictions and values.


Funding that is hospitable to faith-based providers. States are required also to offer to eligible parents child care “certificates.” These are like scholarships that authorize a family to select a child care provider of its choice and then use the scholarship to pay for the care. The chosen provider redeems the scholarship or certificate with the state agency, getting paid for the child care it has provided to the eligible family. 


This is “indirect” government funding:  the government money lands in the bank account of a provider not because of the choice of government officials but because of the choice of parents. If it happens that the government money flows in this way to a faith-based provider that hires people of its own faith and that offers child care that incorporates religious teachings, that’s not because of the government’s decision. This is not an “establishment” of religion. Thus faith-based providers can accept funding via child care certificates without having to simultaneously accept the many church-state restrictions that accompany child-care grants and contracts.


The CDDBG regulations specifically state that “sectarian” providers who receive government funds via certificates are free to incorporate religious teaching and other religious elements in the government-subsidized child care (45 CFR 98.30(c)(4) and (5)). Certificate-funded providers may use religious criteria when hiring staff (45 CFR 98.49). And they retain their freedom to admit by preference the children of families that are already involved with the church or faith-based provider (45 CFR 98.48).


What future for pre-K? Governments increasingly are funding prekindergarten programs.  “Universal prekindergarten” or “UPK” is the goal of using government funding to pay for pre-K programs so that all families, poorer or richer, will have equal access to such programs, which are a blend of expert child care and the earliest stages of systematic education. But by what mechanism will governments, whether states or the federal government, pay for this level of schooling to ensure that is available to all families?


The default k-12 school payment model is “direct” government funding:  the schools are government-created, operated, and funded. But such public schools have to be religion-free. Yet many parents belong one or another of America’s many religious faiths and they would prefer to entrust their young children to a preK program—just like a child care provider—that shares their religious and moral values. 


The solution is for UPK to be paid for “indirectly,” using a mechanism like the CCDBG’s child care certificate mechanism (or federal and state support in higher education, which goes to the institution chosen by the student, not by government). The easiest path would be to adapt the CCDBG program and greatly increase its funding, requiring the funding to be used by states, by default, to pay for certificates awarded to families rather than grants or contracts awarded directly to child care and pre-K providers. 


A UPK program that utilizes certificate funding would attract the wide range of organizations that do, or could, provide these services—secular organizations, public schools and charter schools, secular private schools, faith-based schools, faith-based social service providers, houses of worship that already offer child care.

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