The Agenda

Pascal-Emanuel Gobry on What the U.S. Can and Cannot Learn from French Childcare

As U.S. policymakers weigh efforts to improve the quality and accessibility of child care services, many have looked to France as an example of where we might go next. Pascal-Emanuel Gobry points to some of the limitations of the French model, and the various ways in which it might not meet American tastes and needs:

1. France’s publicly-financed day care centers are well-regarded, and one result is that demand outstrips supply. Spaces are, according to Pascal, allocated in part out of favoritism, e.g., one is more likely to secure a place if one has a longstanding relationship with a public official charged with making admissions decisions. Pascal suggests that differences in the political cultures of France and the U.S. make it unlikely that the U.S. could match French success with regards to publicly-financed day care centers, let alone exceed it, e.g., the U.S. is a more litigious and diverse society than France, and Americans are less amenable to government intervention and spending. The implication is that an American effort to draw on the French approach would either be far more expensive (to deal with the cost of lawsuits, to address the needs of a more diverse population) or of lower-quality.

2. One of the reasons why the cost of France’s publicly-financed day care centers has proven manageable is that the ratio of children to caregivers is twice as high as it is in U.S. day care centers. This reflects French norms around caregiving that differ markedly from those that prevail in the U.S. Assuming U.S. parents pressed for lower ratios of caregivers to children, as they have pressed for lower student-teacher ratios in K-12 schools, the costs associated with day care centers would increase considerably, particularly if the goal is to secure well-trained personnel.

3. The baseline entry requirement for French child care workers is a “CAP,” a secondary vocational diploma. Though CAP recipients have far more specialized training in caregiving than U.S. high school graduates, the CAP is routinely awarded to 17-year-olds. Assuming U.S. parents insisted that child care workers had the equivalent of a community college or bachelor’s degree to work in publicly-financed day care centers, the associated costs would (again) increase.

Yet Pascal concludes by acknowledging that while the French model would be very difficult to export to U.S., there is at least one thing that U.S. policymakers can learn from the French: there is a broad consensus that it is right and appropriate for government to ease burdens on parents, as parents make an investment in the future labor market. 

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