OPINION | Poverty, quality and paying for early childhood education


America is billed as the land of equal opportunity. Yet, in comparison with other developed nations, we lag behind in social mobility for those at the very bottom. Many are quick to blame our K-12 education system or the teachers unions and encourage stripping unions of its bargaining rights, different compensation schemes, or punishment for low-performing schools. There are a lot of issues at play with our school system with schools having to do more with less funding partially as a result of the shifting of funds to cover the increasing costs of special education. The bigger issue at play, however, is poverty.

The number of children in poverty has doubled in the last decade. The research into impacts of child poverty onto brain development continues to show that experiencing high levels of stress in your youth can cause lifelong problems. Luckily, there is also a lot of research into interventions that work to reduce these impacts. For decades, those who study young children have found that high-quality early education environments for children in poverty set children up for success in the schools and life.

Why such a big impact? The vast majority of brain development occurs before a child is five years old and entering kindergarten. Our K-12 teachers are getting students whose brains have been programmed in increasingly stressful environments and they are getting more of them in their classrooms every day.

Children in poverty need early childhood education. Their families need work support and access to quality, reliable child care environments and options that meet their particular family circumstances. As an early childhood provider who has worked with numerous families from Saint Paul’s Promise Neighborhood, I have seen firsthand the impacts of our current system on these families and most importantly, the children. I have seen how the cycle of poverty continues because these children are bounced from one care provider to another depending on their parent’s work status, transportation, or housing situation. It is not bad enough that these children already endure the hardship of poverty, but they also are subject to the whims of public opinion into their parent’s worth and access to “entitlements.”

Many recent immigrants tend to fall into this category, which just lends another level of distress to their lives. The Governor supports expanding ELL services to students. Research has shown that it takes longer than what we are currently providing to help children really learn English well enough to succeed in school. Quality early childhood education is also a way to help bridge this gap before students require language services in the classroom.

In my program, we have a student who is a first generation immigrant from Africa. He has been at our program since the fall of 2011 and has been able to stay in our program despite changes in his mother’s child care authorization from the county because he was awarded a Promise Neighborhood early learning scholarship. We have seen him grow from having low proficiency in the English language, to having one of the highest vocabulary scores in our room of mostly native speakers and meeting all pre-literacy benchmarks for kindergarten entry.

The percentage of children in one-parent families where that parent MUST work to support the family and the number of families where two parents work to build a life for the family is very high. It is HIGHLY unlikely in America that we will support extended paid maternity leave for parents so the focus on early childhood education options is important. Child care subsidies and scholarships provide support to working families so that they can continue to be productive in our job market. The proposed scholarship system provides support for quality which will ensure that the dollars we are spending will pay off in the end. Most estimates put the ROI on dollars spent in early childhood in the double digits which is HUGE (I wish my savings account did that!).

Families have many different needs and most of them can’t be met by a one-size-fits-all solution. The beauty of the scholarship programs as conceived by MinneMinds is that it recognizes the challenges faced by families in poverty and works to empower families to find solutions that work for them. This would be similar to what is currently being implemented in the small number of Parent Aware scholarships available statewide and in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Promise Neighborhoods.

We saw the demand for this type of program when the state-wide scholarships for St. Paul were snapped up almost instantly. I had families apply within the first 30 days of their release that were waitlisted.

Measuring quality in early childhood education

Quality is defined a lot of ways by a number of different people and groups. When it comes to Parent Aware, they want to see providers with qualified and well-trained teachers, a significant amount of parent engagement and strong curriculum and assessment systems. They also look at environment (ECERS/ITERS rating) and positive and productive interactions between teachers and students (CLASS rating).

There are also a number of accrediting bodies nation-wide. Accrediting bodies ensure providers meet national standards of quality above and beyond licensing standards. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is one of the main accrediting bodies and long considered the “gold” standard due to the intense process of documentation and observation. NAEYC expects thorough documentation of policies and practices in 10 different areas: relationships, curriculum, teaching, assessment of child progress, health, teachers, families, community relationships, physical environment, and leadership & management. There are expansive portfolios that providers must develop to document how they meet standards in all domains (ours include a two-file unit for our program portfolio and five file bins — one for each classroom), and there is a day long site visit full of observations and reviews.

Good programs cost money

The largest expense for all care providers is staffing, especially in Minnesota where we do have relatively strict requirements for teacher qualifications. If we’re adding the requirements that NAEYC and Parent Aware set for providers, it’s hard to be cost effective while still getting GOOD staff members who can provide the level of quality required for programming. As the center that I work for moved through the quality improvement process and brought in the people with the skills and knowledge to implement high-quality curriculum and meet the standards for accreditation, we saw our staffing costs increase by over 30 percent. Though we did receive an increased reimbursement rate for our students on county assistance, it was only 15 percent higher than the already-too-low rates. (Rates were cut across the board by 2.5 percent in November of 2011 as part of the government shutdown budget deal.)

Governor Dayton’s suggestions to improve the current Child Care Assistance Program are very important, as the program has not seen increases in provider rates since 2003 and actually saw cuts during the government shutdown. This directly affects the rates charged to self-pay families and leads to some of the highest rates in the country for child care. A strong base for CCAP and fully funding it to the federally mandated levels will help many, many families with the expense of child care.

There are some important consequences to consider if we implement universal PreK only within the school districts. Public preschool is great for many families, but for those who need care for 8-10 hours a day while parents work, the 2.5 hours of preschool just sets up another challenge for care and creates another unnecessary transition for young children.

In addition, it is going to make quality infant and toddler care unbearably expensive for most families.  Many programs subsidize their infant and toddler programming with their preschool programming. Infants and toddlers require more teachers per group of students (licensing mandates a ratio of 1:4 for infants and 1:7 for toddlers versus 1:10 for preschool). Many providers average out expenses so that you’re paying more for preschool than staffing would require to balance out the less-than-full-cost amount that you’re paying for infant/toddler care. We’ve already had to increase our infant and toddler rates to adjust for the losses we’ve experienced in our preschool program due to the public preschool options.

Child care (especially quality child care) even in the “for-profit” sector isn’t all that profitable. Most teachers make $20k-$30k per year (if they’re lucky). Directors make only a little more. People do it because they love children and want to help them build a better life. But it is a challenging job and very under-appreciated for the importance of the work that these educators are doing.

The best system to build for better access and affordability will be a collaboration between the public and the private sector much less like the K-12 system and more like the system of higher education with families able to choose the right fit and aid given based on need. The great thing about MinneMinds analysis is that it really does look at our system, and recommend ways to improve the quality and the access for children at the highest risk without a complete overhaul.

One area of support that is really lacking and I would like to see addressed, is service for those families in the middle — those who make too much for assistance or a scholarship, but who still can’t afford $20,000 per year for child care. Research has shown that these families choose whatever care they can get, but would prefer to bring their child to a quality setting. The key idea is choice. We know that quality early childhood education and care environments are important for all children. We know that they are especially important for children who live in poverty because they mitigate some of the effects of toxic stress and help prepare them to enter the K-12 environment successfully. We know that investments in quality early education lead to long term financial gains and should be used as part of any long-term deficit reduction strategy. We also know that different families have different needs and the level and type of care that young children need is very different from the more “one-size-fits-all” approach of the K-12 system. Scholarships that allow parents in poverty the option to choose the approach that works best for their family are the way to go.

Related content: