President-elect Barack Obama promises change, and childcare centers and preschool programs across the country are in dire need of it.

Obama made it clear throughout his campaign that he is committed to education—to reforming No Child Left Behind; to rewarding and retaining teachers; to preparing high school students for college; to helping parents and students afford college; and, arguably most importantly, to investing in the education of our young children.

Research has consistently shown that investing in childcare and pre-k programs pays off. “For every $1 we invest in these programs, we get $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs, and less crime,” Obama said in a 2007 speech in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Obama’s Zero to Five plan is to invest $10 billion a year to support young children and their parents. Here’s what the plan looks like:

  • Early Learning Challenge Grants These grants will provide states funding to support child care, early education, and other “zero to five” efforts. States will be required to match federal funds and will be given flexibility in how they choose to expand their programs.
  • Support for Head Start The plan is to quadruple the number of eligible children for Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding, and improve quality for both.
  • Universal Pre-School Obama’s plan will provide funding and will encourage all states to adopt voluntary, universal pre-school for all.
  • Child Care Development Block Grant Program (CCDBG) This program provides critical support to low-income families to pay for child care. Obama’s plan will ensure that CCDBG remains adequately funded to account for cost-per-child increases.
  • Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit Obama’s plan will reform the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit by making it refundable and allowing low-income families to receive up to a 50 percent credit for child care expenses.
  • Presidential Early Learning Council This initiative will increase collaboration and program coordination across federal, state, and local levels.

Many educators are hopeful about Obama’s education plan. “It’s really exciting,” says Libby Doggett, Ph.D., Executive Director of Pre-K Now, a DC-based public education and advocacy organization that advances high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten for all three and four-year-olds. “To have a president who is not only talking about early childhood education in quite some depth but who does it with facility and passion is totally unprecedented.”

Parents, many of whom struggle to find high-quality childcare and pre-k that they can afford, are also looking forward to seeing Obama’s promises turn into realities for their children.

“The quality of childcare and pre-k programs is critical to a child’s emotional, social, and intellectual growth,” Doggett says. “Parents are looking for more than babysitters,” Doggett says. “They’re looking for teachers.”

Steven Barnett, Ph.D., Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), confirms that teacher pay and retention in childcare facilities is a problem in most states. “Childcare centers have a labor shortage, and they can’t hire people because Starbucks pays more. We know how to educate kids to increase their school readiness, but we don’t do it. And the primary reason is that we aren’t willing to pay teachers enough to do the job we know they need to do.”

Obama’s plan increases funding support from the federal government as a way of filling holes in the programs, such as teacher shortages. Doggett says it’s about time that the federal government started matching state funding for early childhood education. “Education services for children have been severally underfunded in this country,” Doggett says. “Head Start has been starved for the last few years.”

Barnett believes the plan makes good financial sense. “I think some of Obama’s proposals are appropriate parts of an economic recovery plan,” says Barnett. “If you’re looking for things to spend money on now that will stimulate the economy but won’t cost us in the long run, you look for things that will pay off.”

Barnett is skeptical, however. “It’s ambitious. If we’re serious about enrolling all three and four-year-olds within the decade, we need to increase enrollment by 500,000 children a year,” Barnett says. “I hope he can do it, but we should be starting now, putting up the capital to build early learning facilities.”

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges will be the Presidential Early Learning Council’s efforts to coordinate across departments at the federal, state, and local level. “This is really a complex system,” says Doggett. “Childcare, Head Start, pre-k—they all have different funding streams. They were set up for different purposes, and now we’re trying to bring them together into a cohesive system.”

Many parents with young children are wondering what Obama’s education plan will mean for their children. This will depend on state and local policy decisions that are still forthcoming. With the economic downturn, many states are talking about double-digit cuts in early childhood programs, so these changes in federal support might be coming just in time. How the states will choose to use the funding is yet to be seen, but at the very least, Doggett says, “there will be lots more talk and attention to young children—what’s working, what’s not. When the president makes a policy statement, a lot of people jump on board.”

Educators, researchers, and policymakers agree: In order to succeed, this has to be a federal, state, and local partnership. “And parents have to be a key part of this,” says Doggett. “Parents need to know what’s going on and take action.”

If the voter turnout rate this election is any indication, it would seem that parents are beginning to take action. Parents, now more than ever, are concerned about their children’s future, and parents of young children recognize the necessity of affordable, quality childcare and pre-k programs. “It is possible,” Barnett says. “Our experience in New Jersey has shown that you can transform childcare and pre-k programs into a system that provides high-quality early learning experiences that meet the needs of families.”

What are Obama's other plans for education? Check out Obama on College Funding, Obama on NCLB, Obama on School Choice, Obama on Math, Science and Tech Eduation, and Obama on Teacher Recruitment and Retention.