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Children play a game at a child care center.

From left, Nana-Kwame Akoto-Koree, 4, Annalise Lamprey, 3, and Tina Gordon, 4, play a game at the Guild of St. Agnes, a child care agency, in Worcester, Mass. on April 25, 2017. (Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

'Big Glaring Problem': Democratic Promise for Universal Pre-K, Child Care About to Hit GOP Brick Wall

Like Medicaid expansion, said one progressive analyst, state-level Republicans are likely to opt out of voluntary program designed to lift up struggling families.

Julia Conley

Advocates have heralded the so-called "universal" pre-kindergarten and child care programs included in the Build Back Better Act as a "game-changer" for families across the United States, but progressive policy analyst Matt Bruenig warned Monday of a "glaring problem" in the legislation that's likely to leave millions of children missing out on the benefits.

As Democrats did when they passed an expansion of Medicaid benefits as part of the Affordable Care Act under the Obama administration, Bruenig wrote, the party has left an opening for states with Republican governors or legislatures to reject the federal funds needed for the programs, as well as the state-level cost-sharing required by the Build Back Better Act.

Only 14 states and the District of Columbia have a so-called Democratic trifecta, with Democrats serving as governors and controlling both upper and lower legislative chambers, meaning that children in 37 states will need state-level Republicans to pass corresponding legislation to enact pre-K and child care programs—something they're not likely to do, Bruenig said.

"There are many reasons to believe that state-level Republicans will not go along with these two programs," wrote the People's Policy Project founder, noting that GOP lawmakers are unlikely to want to pass social spending or assist a Democratic president, particularly in issues related to education, considering that "the Republicans have recently adopted a schools-focused electoral strategy based on the idea that Democrats are using the schools to push left-wing viewpoints on race and gender."

"It seems utterly delusional to not see state non-participation as a massive threat to these two programs."

As Reuters reported last week, Republican lawmakers in Idaho rejected $6 million in federal early childhood education funding, claiming the money would "advance liberal teachings on race relations and encourage mothers to work outside the home."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also already hinted at pushing Republican states to reject the $390 billion included in the Build Back Better Act for universal pre-kindergarten and subsidized child care, saying this month that "the Biden administration wants to insert itself into the most intimate family decisions and tell parents how to care for their toddlers."

As another example from recent history, Republican states refused to implement the expansion of Medicaid that was included as a provision of the Affordable Care Act; nearly eight years after the expansion went into effect, 12 states including Texas, Florida, and North Carolina still have not implemented the program.

"Nobody knows the future of course, but it seems utterly delusional to not see state non-participation as a massive threat to these two programs," Bruenig wrote of child care and pre-kindergarten.

Under the Build Back Better Act, the federal government would fully fund the program at first, with the state taking on more of the burden over time. If adopted, states with higher rates of childhood poverty—the majority of which are Republican-controlled—would receive more federal money per capita for the programs.

As Bruenig details in a previous post on the cost-sharing portion of the program, "the federal government would pick up a small fixed-dollar amount in the first three years, pick up a high and then declining percentage of costs for the next three years, and then pick up no costs in year seven."

Cost-sharing for child care and pre-K under Build Back Better plan.

The proposal would allow local governments to work directly with the federal government to set up child care and education programs, but Bruenig noted on social media that "it only sets aside $1 billion per year for localities in non-participating states to do that. It's just not remotely enough money."

"If Democrats are serious about actually providing these benefits to families across the country, they need to amend the legislation right now to provide for a direct federal role," wrote Bruenig.

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