My last post focused mainly on childcare costs because they’re a high barrier to access, especially for low-income children. But access is only one key issue. The other is quality. And here too, money matters, for better or worse. So some words on that.
We know, from the growing body of research, that the experiences children have in their early years play a major role in how they develop — the mental equipment they have for learning, relating to others, dealing with setbacks and more.
That puts a high premium on the environment childcare programs provide, their curricula, how they translate those into day-by-day activities and what teachers and aides know and do as they interact with the children entrusted to them.
The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council dove into the research on early childhood development and came up with three basic types of knowledge and four related competencies that all adults with professional responsibilities for young children should have.
These aren’t things one can just pick up by raising children or working in a childcare center. I find it hard to imagine anyone having the requisite knowledge or how to use it without specialized formal education — or at the very least, intensive training.
The IOM and NRC rely in part on standards some national organizations have developed to certify early childhood educators. These, however, don’t translate into standards that childcare centers and home-based programs must meet. Some standards there are, however — mostly set by state agencies.
Agencies may have more work to do now that Congress has ramped up quality requirements in the Child Care and Development Block Grant — the single largest source of federal funds for subsidized child care.
The reauthorized CCDBG requires states and the District of Columbia to develop and enforce some quality standards, but they must address only health and safety.
They must also spend some small portion of their federal funds to improve the quality of care, plus a very small portion specifically for infants and toddlers. They must also have some quality-related requirements for caregivers, e.g., annual training.
Agencies may already have some quality standards built into their licensing requirements. The District does — a formidable set, including education and/or training, duties for everyone from top to bottom, daily activities, space and what’s in it.
The District also has quality standards specifically for childcare providers eligible for reimbursements to partially close the gap between what they ordinarily charge and what they charge parents with subsidies.
These differ so as to set higher reimbursement rates for providers that meet higher standards. Most don’t meet the highest, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and DC Appleseed recently reported.
Nor can they — in large part because reimbursements don’t fully cover even the ongoing costs of care — at least for infants and toddlers, the focus of the partners’ study. Providers reported a range of trade-offs — things they didn’t do, but would if they had the money.
The most commonly cited was an increase in staff wages — obviously a critical need. Childcare workers in the District earned, on average, $28,380 about a year ago — less than 150% of the federal poverty line for a family of three.
Childcare workers nationwide made even less, leaving those who earned the average only $230 above the same poverty line. So, as with many of the childcare issues I’m dwelling on, the wage problem isn’t unique to the District.
Nor the consequences. those very low wages are unlikely to attract people with a college education — or to enable workers with less to pay for specialized training. Not saying that’s the be-all-and-end-all. But mastery of the must-haves the IOM and NSC lay out does seem to require it.
The wages help account for high turnover rates — an extra cost to providers and a further loss in quality of care, since workers depart, having gained experience and oft as not are replaced by others who’ve less.
The churn also affects quality because, as everyone knows, little kids need stability to thrive, including adults they can count on.
Loss of a caregiver and the need to adjust to another — and then another — will often compound other destabilizing experiences common among low-income families, e.g., food insecurity, frequent moves.
So the need seems clear enough. Childcare providers must take in enough money to pay their employees a decent wage and, one way or another, public policies must ensure they do. At the same time, we don’t want a trade-off that would further reduce access.
What might those policies be? We’ve got a range of proposals — some more far-reaching than others, some fully-developed and some still in the visionary stage. So one more brief post to survey the landscape.
Needless to say (I hope), what the landscape will look like a year from now depends a lot on what happens in November. But we do seem to have a growing consensus that all is not well with our childcare system.
And we’ve some evidence that voters — Republicans, as well as Democrats — would support more federal spending to expand access to early childhood education.
So we just might see some legislation that would ensure low-income children a genuinely even start — and fewer of those children in families that depend on a childcare worker’s income.