Imagine: What if the country could agree on a way to address the huge unmet needs of young children? What if our solution marked a shift in national priorities, directing substantial money toward high-quality child care and early learning? And what if—and here’s the part that strains credulity—Congress approved such a plan?
Well, it already happened. In 1971, back when All in the Family was hitting the airwaves and Muhammad Ali was battling charges of draft dodging, the House and the Senate passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. Although it was named for its child-care component, the legislation would have created a nationwide system for providing education to young children and was the product of years of debate and planning among child-development experts, women’s rights groups, and the business community. But President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, giving a speech (written by Patrick Buchanan) that warned about the dangers that “communal child–rearing” posed to the traditional family. His goal, he explained, was to “enhance rather than diminish both parental authority and parental involvement with children.”
Until recently, the federal government has made no effort to address young children’s needs that rivals the breadth and ambition of the 1971 legislation. Though incremental improvements over the intervening decades have been made, resources for young children have remained scarce. Nationally, less than 1 percent of public investments in education and development are spent on children ages four and younger, which, internationally, makes us an outlier. The U.S. ranks 24th of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries in terms of per-child spending on early childhood education.