The Build Back Better bill, which passed the House on Friday, still has a long way to go before it can be enacted. It needs to pass the Senate and then make it through the budget process before it even lands on President Joe Biden’s desk. As it currently stands, however, the bill would reshape early childhood education for the better. But that is only true for the preschools that qualify for funding through the bill. As it’s written the bill is likely to leave Orthodox Jewish preschools behind.
There are several reasons for this. One is that preschools that teach religion are not eligible for direct government grants. This includes Orthodox Jewish schools as well as Catholic schools. And preschools that receive federal funding would likely be required to follow additional anti-discrimination laws that run counter to religious beliefs and practices. They could be prohibited from holding single-sex programs, or discriminating against LGBTQ+ children or limiting enrollment to people of different religions. Many Orthodox and Catholic preschools would be unable or unwilling to meet these requirements.
The consequences are significant. Build Back Better seeks to solve some major problems that have dogged childcare for years. Many families struggle to find affordable childcare for their children, while many childcare workers themselves make less than a living wage. And turnover in the industry is high. Through a combination of funding for pre-kindergarten programs and of subsidies for low-income families, the bill would greatly reduce the cost of childcare. Low-income families would not have to pay at all. Childcare challenges are one of the top reasons that women dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, so this bill could make a difference in bringing parents, and mothers in particular, back to work.
We believe that families who send their children to religious-affiliated preschools deserve to have the same support and access to early-childhood care that families who send their children to secular preschools will have. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, faith-based organizations provide early childhood care for more than half of families who rely on childcare centers. Barring them from receiving this funding would significantly impair the usefulness of the childcare provisions in the Build Back Better bill. We hope that as the Senate goes through the process of passing its own version, some adjustments to the bill can be made so that religious preschools are not excluded.
But when it comes to antidiscrimination laws, the issues become more challenging. We don’t believe that organizations that receive federal funding should be allowed to discriminate against anyone, whether based on religion, gender or sexual orientation. At the end of the day, the receipt of federal funds is not an entitlement. Rather, funding is made available for those able to play by prescribed rules. If adjustments can be made to the rules that address certain religious preschools’ needs, and clarify the anti-discriminatory nature of those practices, that would be great. But, if not, religious preschools may have to look elsewhere for funding.