Smarter reform: moving beyond single-program solutions to an early care and education system.

Author:Stoney, Louise

Proposals to improve early care and education (ECE) are often based on narrow conceptions of the value, benefits, and appropriate structure of services. The result is an increasing number of initiatives that focus only on a single aspect of the system (e.g., preschool for poor children) and assume this limited intervention can produce large results. This paper argues that to realize ECE's potential to benefit children, families, and the nation's economy, the focus of reform proposals must broaden. The paper highlights the need for public investment that recognizes our children's full worth and that reflects the value of family caregiving by supporting non-market as well as market care. The paper presents an alternative proposal that takes into account the complexity and special nature of ECE markets and that calls for a range of investment strategies and a commitment to a level of institutional support commensurate with a high-quality ECE system.

Keywords: early care and education system reform, finance, policy, child care markets


There is now broad consensus that high-quality early care and education (ECE) programs (1) help young children prepare for school and life (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Brown & Scott-Little, 2003; Gilliam & Zigler, 2004; Barnett, 2002) and that investment in these programs can result in substantial economic returns (Lynch, 2004; Rolnick & Grunewald, 2003; Warner & Liu, 2006). Brain research has further underscored the importance of early experiences (Shore, 1997). And in a very positive trend, leaders from many domains are calling for greater investment in ECE services, while numerous organizations are crafting proposals for how those investments should be made. But many of these proposals, and the research on which they are based, are built on narrow conceptions of the value, benefits, and appropriate structure of early care and education services. For example:

* Cost-benefit analysis of preschool programs for disadvantaged preschoolers is often used to justify public investment limited to three- and four-year olds. Yet brain research indicates that learning begins much earlier, and common sense tells us that needs for ECE services are not restricted to this age group.

* There is a misconception that ECE reforms need not concern themselves with mainstream American families, who can find affordable services in the private market.

* Many proposals for expanding ECE services rely exclusively on either market-based or government financing. But ECE, an industry sector with unique markets, encompasses both kinds of financing. Indeed, there is little research on, or policy analysis related to, the distinctive ECE market.

* Rather than capitalizing on broad systemic approaches to ensuring the quality and accountability of ECE services that numerous states have adopted--for example, Quality Rating Systems that assign "stars" to programs based on their quality--many proposals aim to measure success either by creating new standards that are narrower than the ones already in use, or worse, by testing individual children.

* Research on the economic returns from ECE investments typically focuses only on the long-term costs of failing to invest in early education for poor children. A narrow focus on at-risk children misses a host of new, cost-effective investment opportunities that, by including parents and employers as key partners in early care and education finance, could benefit a broad spectrum of families.

This paper argues for a broader approach to ECE research, policy development, and investment structured around five key principles: 1) systemic reform; 2) giving families "universal access" to child care; 3) improved quality, with clear performance indicators to measure accountability; 4) respect for the value of children and the families who raise them; and 5) increased public investments in the services and leadership to secure these investments. To demonstrate that it is entirely possible to craft and finance an ECE system that embodies these principles, this paper concludes with a concrete proposal.


Unlike the country's K-12 and higher education systems, which have their own financing and administrative practices, ECE services in the United States cannot be accurately described as a system. Instead, a hodge podge of center- and home-based care and education programs has emerged in response to family demand and/or government initiatives. One key reason for the lack of a systemic approach is that caring for children is typically viewed as a private problem. Mona Harrington says it eloquently in Care and Equality (1999, p. 25):

We don't see a collapsing care system because we don't see care as a system to begin with. We see individuals making private decisions about who takes care of the children.... We see families using the private market for services they don't have time to provide themselves.... We don't add all of this up and call it a system that is working well or badly. When things go wrong, when a mother leaves children alone because she cannot afford day care while she works, when marriages fail under the stress of jobs and family demands, when unsupervised teenagers in cities and suburbs turn to sex and drugs, we generally see specific problems--moral, economic--but not an entire care system in trouble. Attempts to solve a narrowly framed ECE "problem" typically result in creating a new initiative--something with a catchy name, aimed at a specific and generally limited group of children, something that will fix the problem because it is finally the "right" way to provide services, such as publicly funded pre-kindergarten initiatives that are limited to only low-income four-year-olds. Funds are allocated for the initiative and a whole new set of standards, rules, regulations, and monitoring practices--another bureaucracy--are established to ensure accountability. But focusing solely on creating new initiatives for specific children of specific ages in specific communities misses important realities about the children who need good care and early education: They live in families, with siblings of all ages and in many different kinds of communities, and they move in and out of programs. They need a continuous, dependable set of services that respond to their developing needs for care and learning, and to the distinctive needs of their families.

The misconceived assumption that new initiatives must be created means that reformers tend not to build on the many successful programs that already exist. In fact, abundant research shows that there are identifiable key elements of high-quality ECE that are not unique to a particular initiative or funding stream but that can be embodied in many different program designs. Thus, rather than looking to any specific initiative as the "answer" to child care problems, we should be open to a wide range of programs but prepared to measure them by criteria that research shows are essential for gauging quality (Vandell & Wolfe, 2002; Munton et al., 2002; Finn et al., 2002 Fiene, 2002; Phillips et al., 2000; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2000; Barnett, 1995; Clarke-Stewart, Gruber & Fitzgerald, 1994; Howes, 1983; Phillipsen et al., 1997; Volling & Feagans, 1995). Those criteria are:

* Structure: the size of the group of children and the ratio of staff to children in the group;

* Staff qualifications and characteristics: the teacher's formal education, specific training and experience; the administrator's experience; and the level of staff compensation and turnover, and

* Program dynamics: a category that encompasses: curriculum (to promote growth and learning in cognitive, language, social and emotional domains), the nature of the learning environment (teacher-child interactions positive teacher behaviors, small-group activities, and implementation of the curriculum), and the engagement of parents (especially reading to and talking with children).

If our nation is to reap the benefits of early education, we need an expansive system of ECE services that extends over time and effectively connects the resources of business, government, communities, and families. This system should build on existing initiatives and funding streams, and encompass not only structured early learning programs but also networks of family, friend, and neighbor care. The system should include business and employment reforms that give parents more flexibility to care for their children and reduce the high stress levels that burden today's working parents and their families. Needed reforms include periods of paid leave, part-time and flexible work hours, shorter work weeks, job-sharing opportunities, and employment benefits for part-time work (Halpern, 2004; Meyers & Jordan, 2006; Gornick & Meyers, 2003).


American ECE policy is built on the assumption that non-poor families can fend for themselves in the private market. Only a small percentage of parents receive significant help. Few employers include child care as an employee benefit, and publicly funded care and early education are typically limited to families at or near the poverty level. The primary tax benefit for most American families who purchase ECE--the non-refundable Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit--increased slightly in tax year 2003 but still provided only modest benefits--on average, a claim of a few hundred dollars per child. Similarly, the broad federal tax exemption for families with dependent children (which is not pegged to child care expenses per se) has significantly decreased in value since it was established in 1948.

Finding and paying for high quality ECE are problems that cut across class lines. Market prices, even at current, mediocre quality levels, exceed that of public college tuition in all but one state (Schulman, 2003). Few employed parents--even professionals--can afford as much caretaking and...

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