Map: Several states offer, or may offer, free child care for early educators

Children walk down a hallway in a school, showcasing the importance of early education programs that many states are now aiming to support with new funding initiatives.

Across the country, child care remains unaffordable for many families, difficult to find for those who can pay, and financially challenging for day care operators and their employees. 

The Biden administration and Congress provided $52.5 billion in relief during the pandemic, but as these funds wind down, many states have introduced their own solutions.

States enacting free child care policies

Some states are expanding free preschool and early education, helping more families afford child care, and creating sustainable funding sources for these programs:

New Mexico: In 2022, New Mexico amended its constitution to fund free child care for nearly all state families using revenue from leasing state land to oil and gas companies. This initiative is expected to generate approximately $150 million annually, significantly supporting early childhood education and making child care accessible for families earning up to 400% of the federal poverty level.

Washington: Washington state implemented a 7% tax on profits from residents' financial investments in 2021. This tax aims to offer free preschool to low-income families and child care vouchers to low- and moderate-income families. The revenue from this tax supports high-quality care for infants and toddlers with developmental concerns, aiming to provide comprehensive support to families in need.

Kentucky: In 2023, Kentucky introduced a program to cover or reduce the cost of day care for parents working in the child care industry. This policy is designed to attract more workers to the child care field and provide low-cost care for all families. By expanding the eligibility requirements of the child care subsidy program to include all staff working at least 20 hours per week in licensed early care and education programs, Kentucky aims to improve the availability of child care and support early educators.

Bipartisan support for child care initiatives

While significant investments in child care have often been spearheaded by Democrats, Republican state lawmakers are increasingly supporting these initiatives. Recognizing the critical role of child care in economic stability and workforce development, both parties are finding common ground.

For example, in states like Nebraska and Iowa, Republican lawmakers have joined their Democratic colleagues in pushing for expanded child care subsidies and support programs

These initiatives are aimed at addressing the workforce shortage in the child care sector, which in turn supports working parents and boosts the overall economy.

States considering free child care

Kentucky's successful model has inspired over a dozen states to consider similar programs, including:

  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Massachusetts
  • Nebraska
  • Rhode Island

Long-term benefits and challenges

Better-staffed early care and education programs increase the supply of child care, allowing more parents to re-enter the workforce. However, many states still struggle to retain and attract early educators due to competition with higher-paying jobs in other industries.

States are exploring various funding models to support these initiatives, ensuring they can continue to provide essential services for families and early educators. The success of these programs could serve as a blueprint for a nationwide solution to the child care crisis.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.