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One of the Most Effective Ways to Fund Childcare Does Not Rely on Congress

7 minute read

Goldstein is Care Reporting Fellow for the Better Life Lab at New America. Her report, A Playbook to Transform How America Cares, is out October 24. She’s also a speaker and journalist who writes on mothers, caregivers, and gender equity and the creator of The Double Shift newsletter, podcast, and community.

Erica Gallegos, who worked as an organizer in New Mexico a decade ago, at one point had “stepped foot in every single childcare center in the state,” she told me, sometimes spending a week in small towns five hours from her home, getting to know people, hearing their concerns and building trust. While you may have heard the good news about New Mexico’s constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to early childhood education that passed with 70% of the vote via ballot initiative in 2022, you may not know that it took around 12 years of building constituent power around this issue before it passed. In addition to getting to know childcare providers, parents, and other stakeholders, advocates used political power in 2020 to successfully primary four conservative Democrats who were blocking getting the amendment before voters. After all that legwork, they got support from allies like New Mexico’s Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and New Mexicans got the chance to vote for transformational change more than a decade in the making. 

It was a win worth celebrating. And yet make no mistake: America is still in the midst of a severe childcare crisis. The pandemic decimated the already threadbare industry forcing 16,000 childcare centers to close nationwide and 100,000 workers to leave the profession. And unfortunately, the sector is now sustaining another body blow: billions in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money that’s been keeping remaining providers afloat began running out at the end of September. The predictions for what will happen are dire: more than 3 million children may lose their spots, and more than 70,000 centers may close. A 2023 poll conducted by the First Five Years Fund found that nearly 80% of voters from across the political spectrum support more federal funding for childcare, and yet after the failure of Build Back Better’s social legislation to pass in 2021, there’s little chance of major funding for at least a few more years.

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So how can we attempt to stabilize the industry now rather than waiting around for a federal miracle? After speaking with more than 40 care leaders for my report, A Playbook to Transform How America Cares for the Better Life Lab at New America, I discovered a broad consensus that ballot initiatives like the one in New Mexico are one of the most effective ways of getting meaningful funding for care policies for kids right now.

Given the intensity of the 2020 election, you might be forgiven if you did not track what Children’s Funding Project CEO Elizabeth Gaines called “a children’s wave” with seven ballot initiatives passing to fund early childhood initiatives, often using a mechanism called voter-approved children’s funds, where dedicated local public revenue for children’s services outside of K-12 education is approved by voters. There are currently more than 50 local funds across the country, and this tactic unlocks $1.5 billion annually. 

While getting funding for kids on the ballot might seem like a quick workaround for politics as usual, there typically is no such thing as an overnight success – although our current nationwide childcare catastrophe may create more urgency for this type of action. 

New Mexico is funding its program using a unique existing $26 billion fund that was created in 1912 and funded by oil and gas revenue along with interest, so it didn’t require raising new taxes. In many other areas, the political calculus revolves around the question of whether voters, especially in red states, really want to vote to raise their own taxes for early childhood funding.

Sometimes, it turns out, the answer is yes.

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Activists in New Orleans learned a lot about this after their first ballot initiative for early childhood funding failed. In 2020, Mayor LaToya Cantrell approached some early-childcare advocates with an idea: through a ballot initiative, she wanted to adjust the city budget to fund 100 more childcare seats for low-income students by shifting some of the library budget to early-childhood funding. “We were operating under two assumptions,” says Hamilton Simons-Jones, secretary of Ready Kids New Orleans. “One was that we can't pass a new tax. We have to figure out how to do this within the existing amount of tax people are paying. And two, that we gotta take what they give us.” 

The campaign did not go well. The opposition to cutting the library budget was fierce, and those pushing the initiative had a hard time generating enthusiastic support in the community about adding only 100 new seats. “Our childcare-provider advocates were out waving signs on Election Day, and motorists were stopping to cuss at them,” Simons-Jones recalls. “They’d yell, ‘You're taking money from libraries!’ It was terrible.” The December 2020 ballot referendum failed, with only 43% of voters supporting it.

But instead of giving up, advocates licked their wounds, regrouped, and decided to go bigger. They conducted their own voter polling and found that, contrary to previous assumptions, people actually were willing to vote to increase taxes for early education, under the right circumstances. Based on their research, they came up with the highest property tax hike they thought voters would pass and calculated that, with the help of matching funds from the State of Louisiana, they would be able to access a total of over $40 million annually for early-childhood seats for 2,000 low-income students in New Orleans, rather than only 100 in the Mayor’s first proposal. An advocacy group called For Providers By Providers kicked into high gear for get-out-the-vote efforts and the campaign was able to pay a stipend to childcare workers to phone bank and go door-to-door, sharing their own experiences to illustrate why this funding was so important. These stories strongly resonated with voters, and the measure passed with 61% of the vote, delivering a huge victory for advocates and low-income families. 

And it’s not just New Orleans that has been able to find bipartisan support for these funds. In 2020 Escambia County in the Florida panhandle approved the creation of a children’s service trust with 61% of the vote at the same time Trump won the area with 57% of the vote. Child advocates were able to bring on business leaders to support the proposal. After the community suffered $300 million in damage as a result of Hurricane Sally in September 2020, more leaders got on board with the idea that kids' services needed a stable source of funding, especially given the instability of the pandemic as well. The initiative is now raising $10 million per year for 10 years funded through a property-tax increase. 

Gaines thinks unlocking funding through ballot initiatives creates important momentum. “We have to be incentivizing each other all over the place,” she explains. “The feds need to be incentivizing the states, the states need to be incentivizing the locals. Locals need to be pushing up and saying, ‘Hey, we're doing it. Why aren't you doing it?’” 

Putting funding for kids on the ballot at the state and local level won’t solve the nation’s childcare woes (especially since not all states allow ballot initiatives) or fully stabilize the industry (it needs billions that only the federal government can provide). But it does offer some meaningful partial solutions and shows people with power that communities want and need childcare solutions now and will vote to raise their own taxes to support them. Now that we’re being forced to deal with the fallout of the ARPA funding cliff, ballot initiatives for future “children’s waves” are needed more than ever. 

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