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Tight Budgets Force Hard Choices Among Child Care Providers

November 17, 2017
David Lowenberg
Education Writers Association

“An impossible equation.” That’s how Phil Acord describes the challenge of keeping afloat a high-quality early learning program that serves children from low-income families.

As the president of the Chambliss Center for Children, a nonprofit organization that provides around-the-clock care and education to young children in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Acord knows well how difficult it can be for child care providers to simply keep their doors open each month.

“You’ve got a three-legged stool of accessibility, affordability, and quality,” Acord told reporters earlier this month at the Education Writers Association’s early learning seminar in Chicago. “So when you’re trying to ensure quality, you’re trying to do it while serving low-income families who can’t afford to pay you. To give them access and make it affordable is almost an impossible equation.”

Despite a robust body of evidence that children’s experiences in their first few years of life have long-lasting effects on their cognitive and social development, insufficient funding has left many early care and education programs just scraping by, a panel of providers and early learning researchers told reporters.

Early learning programs hold the promise of closing achievement gaps before they start, and setting children up for success in kindergarten and beyond, experts say. But not just any program will do. Children benefit most when they’re in full-day, high-quality programs — those in which they have rich, engaging interactions with highly-qualified staff, and where learning is based on a developmentally-appropriate curriculum, among other factors, the speakers emphasized.

That said, quality doesn’t come cheap, said Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which is based at Rutgers University.

“Decent infant/toddler programs cost, on average, about $13,000 per kid,” Barnett said. ”What really matters is a really competent adult having one-on-one interactions with a child where their really inside a kid’s head. That’s expensive.”