Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, has been a critic of the universal approach, instead favoring more targeted programs. He questioned whether states would do their part to fund the expansion and said the goal of paying all early childhood workers $15 per hour was too modest to broadly improve the quality and stability of the work force.
“How governors weigh these competing priorities, ethically and politically, remains an open question,” he said.
The proposed investment from Washington comes at a precarious time. Preschool enrollment declined by nearly 25 percent over the past year, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic. As of December, about half of 4-year-olds and 40 percent of 3-year-olds attended pre-K, including in remote programs. And only 13 percent of children in poverty were receiving an in-person preschool education in December, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Unlike the preschool proposal, the child care plan is not universal. It would offer subsidies to families earning up to 1.5 times their state’s median income, which could be in the low six figures in some locations. It would also continue tax credits approved in the pandemic relief bill this year that offer benefits to people earning up to $400,000 a year.
As with Mr. Biden’s previous policy proposals, the American Families Plan offers something to many traditional Democratic Party constituencies. The administration is closely tied to teachers’ unions, and while many early childhood educators are not unionized, the proposal also calls for investments in K-12 teacher education, training and pay, which are all union priorities. One goal is to bring more teachers of color into a public education system where a majority of students are nonwhite.
The expansion of free community college would apply to all students, regardless of income. It would require states to contribute to meet the goal of universal access, senior administration officials said on Tuesday. Mr. Biden would also expand Pell grants for low-income students and subsidize two years of tuition at historically black colleges and universities, as well as at institutions that serve members of Native American tribes and other minority groups.
Mr. Fuller said he expected the community college proposal to effectively target spending to the neediest students. About one-third of all undergraduates attend public two-year colleges, which serve a disproportionate number of students from low-income families.