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Tax Credits No Boost to Good Day Care, Study Finds

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Child-care strategies that rely on tax credits and vouchers to insure parental choice and keep centers competitive have had no "discernible effect on the quality of child care,'' a new study asserts.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard University graduate school of education, concludes that the quality of care is highest in child-care centers receiving government subsidies to serve the children of poor and working-class families.

While tax credits, which make up the largest share of federal child-care aid, "relieve the cost burden facing middle- and upper-income families,'' said Bruce Fuller, an associate professor of education who headed the study, they have had "no effect over time'' in boosting child-care quality.

The study suggests that "by targeting subsidies on centers in low-income neighborhoods, we are actually equalizing quality to a larger extent,'' said Mr. Fuller. Use of tax credits, he said, "tends to result in a more regressive financing structure.''

Of the $4 billion in federal aid that goes toward child-care tax credits each year, the study notes, 36 percent goes to families with annual incomes of $40,000 or more, while 8 percent goes to those earning $13,000 or less. Since households with higher incomes get a larger tax break but spend a much smaller share of their incomes on child care, tax-credit approaches amount to "welfare for the well off,'' Mr. Fuller said.

The study, which involved 1,805 child-care centers in 36 states, incorporated data compiled by the Mathematica Policy Research Center in Princeton, N.J., and the Urban Institute in Washington for a major 1991 child-care study, in addition to other federal and state data.

The sample included public and private nonprofit and for-profit centers, but not family day-care homes that serve small groups of children in care-givers' or parents' homes.

To gauge child-care quality, the researchers examined such factors as child-staff ratios, care-givers' salaries and qualifications, parent participation, and "formalization of the teaching role,'' denoting such factors as a structured curriculum and teacher planning time.

Demand Drives Quality

Centers receiving government subsidies were deemed of the highest quality based on teacher-salary levels and rates of parent participation. The average salary level for teachers at subsidized centers was $14,595, compared with $10,562 for nonsubsidized centers, and the level of parent participation at subsidized centers was twice that of nonsubsidized ones.

The subsidized centers did not, however, have lower child-staff ratios or more highly trained teachers--qualities the report also linked with "positive child development.''

The data indicate that subsidized centers "seem to be putting most of their money into higher teacher salaries,'' said Mr. Fuller. Higher wages are tied to quality, he said, because they tend to result in lower staff turnover and more stable environments for the child, factors previous studies have shown are beneficial.

The study also concludes that:

  • Child-care centers operated by public schools pay teachers 50 percent more than the national average, but have lower levels of parent participation than other centers.
  • Church-run centers have the least-qualified staffs and lowest teacher salaries and parent-participation rates.
  • States with higher proportions of working mothers have higher-quality centers because "market demand'' tends to boost quality independently of the positive effects of state wealth.
  • Tax credits are most beneficial in reducing parents' child-care costs in poorer states, especially in the South.

One finding Mr. Fuller said had drawn fire from some child-advocacy groups is that government regulation of child care does not appear to have a direct bearing on center quality. The study shows that variations in quality among states are more related to such factors as the level of demand generated by maternal employment and the level of government subsidization.

"These factors in wealthier, urban states eclipse any positive effect from state-government attempts to centrally regulate quality,'' the report states.

Mr. Fuller noted, however, that the standards centers must meet to qualify for subsidies may lead to improved quality in those settings.

Off the Mark?

Robert Rector, a family-issues analyst for the Heritage Foundation who favors tax credits and vouchers, said the study results are "very wide of the mark in terms of the public-policy debate'' because the researchers did not consider care provided by "grandparents, neighbors, and parents themselves.'' Tax credits and vouchers are "intended to facilitate'' those kinds of choices, he noted.

He also argued that correlations between quality and such variables as staff salaries and qualifications are "very tenuous at best'' and that those are not necessarily "the things parents are interested in.''

Mr. Fuller said the study argues for a "controlled choice'' model that allows for a diverse market of privately and publicly financed providers in which government "can still play a strong role in raising the quality of centers serving the kids most in need.''

Vouchers targeted specifically to poor and working-class families could "yield the same effect'' on center quality as subsidies, he added, but such programs have not been in place long enough to assess their effectiveness.

Copies of the report, "Can Government Raise Child Care Quality? The Influence of Family Demand, Poverty, and Policy,'' are available for $10 each from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 450 Gutman, Appian Way, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

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