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Preschool Matters Today

First Do No Harm: It’s Time to Address Our Quality Problem

January 6, 2011

In the next several years, those of us who believe government policies can and should help children and families are going to be in a tough fight.  We need to be clear that this is not so much a fight for money as it is a fight for learning and development — a fight to ensure that every child has a chance to get in the game and compete on a level playing field in economic, social, and political life. The problem is, we can’t fully meet this challenge as long as we abide, and even seem to endorse, early childhood programs that don’t support learning and development.

In the last several years, a number of studies have found that child care subsidies negatively impact child development.  This finding is particularly disturbing because we know that good early care and education enhances child development.  So why all the bad news?  A quick look at the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort study, commonly called ECLS-B, provides some insights.  At age 2, 12 percent of children in poverty were in center-based care.   More than twice as many, 27 percent, were in home-based (nonparental) care.  Unfortunately, two-thirds of that home-based care was poor quality and virtually none of it was good.  Center-based care was much better, relatively speaking.  Only 15 percent was poor quality and 20 percent good or better.  With those numbers it should come as no surprise that children from low-income families are not benefiting from, and may even be harmed by, home-based care as it is currently provided.

Child care subsidy policy in the United States is designed to get the unemployed, mostly women, into the labor force as cheaply as possible and encourages the use of low-cost home-based care over centers.  In other words, federal and state child care policies increase the numbers of children from low-income families in poor quality early learning environments.  At the same time, they have little effect on labor force participation.  This is the policy equivalent of shooting ourselves in the head, given the importance of early learning and development for later school success and achievement.  It also reinforces inequality and the cycle of poverty.  We need to turn these policies around now.

The State Early Learning Advisory Councils that have recently been formed provide an opportunity to do just that beginning with three actions.

  • First, the Councils can collect data on the quality of early learning for infants and toddlers that will reveal just how bad the problem is state by state.  This information can help bring the problem to the attention of the general public and elected officials.
  • Second, the Councils can recommend policy changes that will increase quality and tie public subsidies to quality.  Ideally, public subsidies should only go to care providers of good or better quality.  This will take some time, but every state should be able to eliminate subsidies for poor quality care entirely within five years.  No government should encourage the use of poor quality care.
  • Third, the Councils should produce estimates of the costs of ensuring that (a) no subsidized care is of poor quality and (b) all subsidized care is good or better.

Given the tough budget decisions facing states and the federal government, the question is, are these recommendations realistic?  I believe they are. Frankly, if we accept the view that we can only afford poor quality care, we might as well give up subsidies altogether.  We should face the fact that we may do more harm than good by subsidizing poor quality care, and we should stop it.  Moreover, we are in a weak position to oppose cutbacks when quality is not “job one.”  Some members of Congress already have proposed rolling back spending for child care subsidies and Early Head Start to 2008 levels.  Without a floor on care quality, it is much easier to hide the consequences of funding cuts because the amount per child can be cut without reducing the number of children served.  In anticipation, each State Advisory Council should have in hand figures for the number of subsidized children who can be supported in adequate care with the current funding and the number who can be supported in adequate care if funding is rolled back to 2008 levels.

If we are willing to condone spending public dollars on poor quality care, we can’t convincingly make our case for additional funding.  It is just about the money at that point, and even if we win, our children lose.   Let’s take the option of poor quality care off the child care subsidy table.

Steve Barnett,

Co-director, NIEER