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One thing Washington can do: ease costs for child care

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A new study shows that full-time care at a daycare center costs an average of $9,589 a year – more than average in-state college tuition.

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    Cynthia Knight (l.), director of Castles Day Care Academy in Charlotte, N.C., says 4-year old Kayden Brown (r.) is reading at a fourth-grade level.
    Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
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Here at Castles Day Care Academy in Charlotte, N.C., the cuteness factor is off the charts. And so is the learning factor.

African-American tots are singing and dancing their way through the ABC’s and all the different sounds the letters can make. They are jumping and chanting the spellings of the days of the week, the months, and the colors. They deliver up adjectives to describe their teacher (she’s got “big” hair!), define a verb for her, and call out compound words like basketball, outside, and quarterback.

It’s a verbal and physical workout for these 2-to-5-year-olds, culminating in a child like Kayden Brown. At age 4, he’s impressively reading aloud from his favorite book about basketball star LeBron James. The day care academy’s administrator, Cynthia Knight, says he’s reading at a fourth-grade level.

The academic rigor and fun are why Ms. Knight’s child-care center is in high demand among the rising black middle class in this part of Charlotte.

But affordability is an issue.

“It’s a lot of money,” says Terence Hicks, who has come to pick up his son, 4-year-old T.J. The day care center – really a school, says Mr. Hicks – costs $200 a week, more than $10,000 a year. Add to that private school for his high-school son and language camp for his middle-school daughter. “It’s a major struggle.”

Because Hicks and his wife earn too much to qualify for a child-care tax credit, this barber and stylist puts in a lot of overtime, which is stressful on his family life. A homeowner, he loves the idea of a child-care tax deduction, as suggested by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. A pre-tax savings account, also suggested by Mr. Trump, is a  “great idea,” says Hicks.

For the first time, child care has made it into a presidential election as a campaign issue for both sides. It has been pushed there by pressure from working families, by the first woman presidential nominee, and by the daughter of the Republican nominee. The fact that Hillary Clinton and Trump are touting day care plans gives hope to those involved in the field that this might be one area where the two parties can actually come together.

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“I think that there’s broad understanding now that early education is a bipartisan issue,” says Carolyn Hazeldine, head of communications for Child Care Resources Inc. in Charlotte, speaking broadly about care and education for children before kindergarten.

“Seeing that issue getting the attention it’s getting is exciting, but the more exciting idea would be successful implementation of a plan,” says Ms. Hazeldine.

In the Charlotte area, the problem is not supply of day care, but of funds. Children can be on waiting lists for years because there is not enough federal and state money to help people who qualify for assistance, she says.

2 in 3 young kids have working parents

In 1971, a Democrat-controlled Congress passed bipartisan legislation for a national day care system – funded by the government, locally administered, and available to all on a sliding scale. Republican President Richard Nixon at first supported it, then vetoed it. He wrote that there needed to be a “great national debate” before the government moved away from the “family-centered approach.”

But families have changed since 1971. Since the 1990s, a majority of mothers have worked outside the home. Today, nearly two-thirds of children under 6 live in families where both parents work; only 28 percent did in 1970. Also, the number of single-parent households has risen. Child-care help has become a necessity, but a fifth of families rely on a “patchwork” system of cobbled-together care, according to a new study called The Care Report.

The study, put out by the New America public policy institute and Care.com, found that full-time care at a center costs an average $9,589 a year – more than the average cost for in-state college tuition, and nearly a fifth of annual median household income. The average cost for an in-home caregiver is $28,353, according to the report. No state scores well in all three categories of the study’s criteria: cost, quality, and availability.

“Cost has really put this issue on the map,” says Katie Hamm, of the progressive Center for American Progress. “There’s a recognition from Republicans and Democrats that the cost has gotten out of hand.”

Research has also shown how critical the pre-K years are for child development, and both parties see quality, affordable child care as an economic boon – allowing parents and children to move up the economic ladder.

“I think there is a growing bipartisan commitment to finding new ways of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and expanding opportunity for many Americans,” says Katharine Stevens, of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Clinton and Trump's proposed savings

And then there are women voters. At the urging of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, the GOP presidential candidate – who faces high disapproval among women – came out with a plan in September to allow mothers six weeks of paid maternity leave. He also is proposing a tax deduction and tax-free savings accounts for child care, and a refundable tax credit for low-income earners.

Clinton, who has been pushing family issues from the start of her campaign – and throughout her political career – supports 12 weeks of paid leave for mothers and fathers, and for adoptions. She would cap child-care expenses at 10 percent of family income, supported by government subsidies and tax credits. She would also guarantee universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds.

According to an analysis by Care.com, median-income families using a day care center would save $4,241 per child under Clinton's plan and $1,435 under Trump's. The current tax credit for child care is $1,000.

“As far as child care is concerned and so many other things, I think Hillary and I agree on that,” said Trump in the first debate last month. “We probably disagree a little bit as to … what we’re going to do.”

The candidates may agree on the need for more government support for child care, but the details – or that “little bit” – could make for a steep climb toward some kind of bipartisan agreement after the election.

The approaches differ. Trump’s deduction and savings account would benefit higher-income earners – parents such as Hicks at Castles Day Care, who earn enough to take a deduction and save. Clinton’s cap and universal pre-K would benefit such families, but also the poor and lower-income earners.

That would be someone like Ronisha Glover, who recently – with tears in her eyes – had to take her youngest daughter out of Castles Day Care because of a change in family income. “We don’t see much tax money,” so a deduction would not help her, says Ms. Glover.

Challenge: Cost to federal government

Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome would be cost to the federal government. These plans could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, according to estimates.

“The problem, like anything else these days, is that it costs money,” says Jared Bernstein, a former Obama administration economic adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Prospects for some kind of agreement "are very good," he says, "but they face a steep barrier."

He sees two reasons why something might clear the legislative bar. If Clinton wins, he says, this will be a first-100-days priority for her. Even with tough Congresses, history shows that most presidents get some of their early priorities, he says. The White House and Congress could also agree to scale back the proposals or help just the most needy Americans, Mr. Bernstein says.

In July, Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine introduced a bill that would increase the child-care tax credit and make it refundable for the first time – cash in hand.

It includes larger contributions to tax-free savings accounts for dependent care, a measure pushed by the bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina, who is in a tough fight to retain his seat.

The hope is that the bipartisan effort might become part of a lame-duck deal on taxes after the election.

Ms. Hamm thinks there will be some kind of increase in assistance for child care. If not this Congress, then the next. "I think we're getting there, slow but steady."

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