Building on a Weak Foundation

Oct 11, 2012

By Hannah Matthews

Early learning has never been more prevalent in policy discussions. Everyone from educators to economists to business leaders is promoting the importance of investments during the early years to improve child outcomes in school and in life. Across the country, states are increasingly looking at issues of quality to improve early childhood programs and promote positive child outcomes.

A report released today by the National Women's Law Center, Downward Slide: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2012, shows that these quality initiatives are building on an extremely weak foundation. The federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is the largest source of funding to ensure that low-income working families can obtain child care, providing subsidies to cover portions of the high costs of care. It is also the underlying funding that supports most child care and early education quality improvement efforts. CCDBG requires states to spend at least 4 percent of funds on quality initiatives, although many states spend a higher percent than that. Those quality dollars support Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), tiered reimbursement (paying higher rates for higher quality care), and special initiatives to improve care for underserved populations such as infants and toddlers.

According to Downward Slide, in just one year, from 2011 to 2012, low-income families in 27 states found themselves worse off under state child care assistance policies than the previous year. Continuing the previous year's trend, states reduced income eligibility, saw child care waiting lists grow and increased parent co-payment rates. Most disturbingly, New York is now the only state in the country that pays child care providers at the level recommended in federal guidance, ensuring that families have access to at least three-quarters of care providers available in the child care market. Without sufficient rates, child care providers cannot purchase and maintain materials and supplies, pay an adequate wage to teachers and staff, and make investments that improve the quality of care. Moreover, when states pay very low rates to providers, it may discourage child care providers from accepting child care subsidy payments and reduce children's access to high-quality programs.

Unlike the publicly funded K-12 education system, the vast majority of early education programs in the U.S. are financed by parents with public and private entities picking up a small share. And the truth is that low-income families simply cannot afford quality child care without help. Getting low-income children access to quality early education programs is fundamental to the success of efforts to prepare vulnerable children for kindergarten, to improve educational outcomes and ultimately improve adult economic success.

As national and state policy conversations continue to focus on advancing high-quality early childhood systems, we must take a look at the foundation we're building on. Not only are these efforts at risk if they're built on a weak foundation, but the restrictions to securing child care assistance for low-income families will prevent disadvantaged children from getting placed in those very settings that could improve their odds for success in school and in life. The country is set to serve the fewest number of children with child care assistance since 1998, and the threat of sequestration raises the likelihood of even further restrictions to access and disinvestments in quality.

All the talk of the importance of early learning will be just that if we continue to leave child care assistance policies in free fall. For the complete state-by-state analysis, read Downward Slide: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2012.

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