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Focus on Quality and Availability of Child Care Urged

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Washington--A prominent business group warned last week that gaps in the quality and availability of child care are jeopardizing the optimal development and educational futures of young children.

The warning was issued in a 68-page policy statement released at a news conference here by the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan public-policy group based in New York City whose 250 trustees include top corporate executives and university presidents.

Previous reports issued by the panel, which analyzes educational and social issues from an economic perspective, have been influential in bolstering support among policymakers for increased spending on early-childhood education.

The new report argues that not enough has been done to insure that child-care settings meet the educational and developmental needs of young children, especially those from low-income families.

"Discussions of child care have mostly centered on the convenience of today's adults, not the developmental needs of tomorrow's workers and citizens,'' the report concludes.

At the same time, it notes, early-years programs with an educational focus--such as Head Start--often fall short of meeting working parents' need for full-day, full-year care.

"Programs that are out there to provide a developmental foundation for disadvantaged children are completely divorced from other programs'' providing child-care subsidies for low-income families, Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the C.E.D.'s vice president and director of education studies, said in an interview.

Robert E. Campbell, the vice chairman of Johnson & Johnson and the head of the C.E.D. panel that drafted the document, said it was designed to show "how child care fits into the development of our human resources as much as prenatal care for mothers, quality education for students, and training for workers.''

While communities and families recognize the need for programs blending care and education, noted Ellen Galinsky, a senior project adviser for the C.E.D. report, "policy decisions are still being made as if they were separate.''

As background for the C.E.D., Ms. Galinsky and Dana F. Friedman, the co-presidents of the Families and Work Institute, a group that studies workplace family policies, conducted a study of the weaknesses and strengths of current child-care practices. The study, "Education Before School: Investing in Quality Child Care,'' has been published by Scholastic Inc. and was also released at the news conference.

"We need to come into the recognition that child care is at the core of the early-education system in this country, and that educational reform isn't going to succeed unless we pay attention to what is happening to kids in the early years,'' Ms. Galinsky said.

Poor Families Ill-Served

To highlight the "converging interest'' on the part of parents, business, and society in improving children's preschool experiences, the C.E.D. report cites data on the increased numbers of women in the workforce and young children living in single-parent homes. It also notes that from 1976 to 1990 the number of child-care centers tripled; that more than one-third of children under age 6 are now in some form of out-of-home care; and that more than half of women with children under age 1 are in the labor force.

The national education goal stating that all children should enter school ready to learn by 2000 underscores the need to tap children's early learning potential in order to minimize the risk of school failure, the group notes.

The economy and society benefit, it adds, when "employees feel confident that their children are secure and learning'' and when "the next generation of citizens is well prepared for its adult responsibilities.''

The group maintains that existing programs do not meet the needs of poor families, which devote a much greater share of their incomes to child care than more affluent ones do. It also says a disproportionate share of government spending on child care through the tax system goes to middle- and upper-income families, while programs like Head Start still do not reach many eligible children.

The group's report also cites data painting a "mixed picture'' of the quality of center-based care, and it raises concern about rising child-staff ratios and high staff turnover linked with low wages and poor benefits. It also notes that much less is known about the quality of informal family-care homes.

Ms. Galinsky and Ms. Friedman estimate in their study that programs of high quality would cost $10 billion more than the $13 billion parents now collectively spend on child care per year.

Linking Aid Sources

The C.E.D. report concedes that no single strategy or system can remedy shortcomings in child care, and it accents the need for "diversity and choice'' in child-care settings. But it argues for a "more coordinated approach'' to caring for young children.

The group's recommendations include:

  • Making the federal dependent-care tax credit refundable so that a larger share of benefits go to low-income families, and providing the credit in increments rather than annually, "so parents associate it with child-care costs.'' The report says that benefits for higher-income families may have to be cut to do this.
  • While supporting the use of vouchers to widen parents' options, the group urges allotting "proportionately more'' federal child-care subsidies directly to providers that serve low-income families.
  • Insuring that Head Start reaches as many 3-year-olds as 4-year-olds, and expanding efforts to offer Head Start-like interventions to children from birth to age 3 and into the elementary grades. But the C.E.D. says it would "support slowing the expansion of Head Start'' to direct more aid toward program quality.
  • Integrating and blending funds from preschool programs, Head Start, the federal child-care block grant, and subsidies offered under the federal welfare-reform law.
  • Promoting state and local strategies to improve the salaries and training of child-care workers, upgrade family-day-care services, and increase the availability and quality of infant and toddler care.
  • Encouraging states to adopt child-care standards that "promote good developmental outcomes'' without unduly burdening providers, and limiting the use of federal child-care aid for poor children--including vouchers--to programs that meet the the state standards.

Dissenting Remarks

The C.E.D. does not put an overall price tag on its recommendations, nor does it identify a single funding source. The responsibility should be shared, Sol Hurwitz, the president of the group, said last week, by "a coalition of groups at every level,'' including federal, state, and local agencies, parents, and businesses.

The group's report cites examples of model corporate efforts to improve parents' child-care options, from building on-site centers, to helping workers pay for child care, to forming partnerships with public and private agencies.

It also urges firms to adopt "family friendly'' policies such as job-sharing and "telecommuting,'' and it calls for incentives for companies to offer family leave for parents for three to 12 months following the birth of a child. But the C.E.D. does not support extending the newly enacted Family and Medical Leave Act to smaller businesses, which it says "need flexibility to be competitive.''

In an addendum to the report, Owen B. Butler, a retired chairman of the board of the Procter & Gamble Company and a former C.E.D. president, voices reservations about some portions of it. He argues, for example, that its discussion on child-care demand fails to give "sufficient weight'' to choices made by unmarried mothers and dual-career couples.

Mr. Butler also says in the addendum that he strongly opposes making the dependent-child-care tax credit refundable.

Meanwhile, Barbara Reisman, the executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign, an advocacy group, predicted that the C.E.D. report "will go a long way'' toward helping people see that "child care and education are part of the same process.''

While it would have been "unthinkable'' for business leaders to issue such a policy statement 20 years ago, noted Mr. Campbell of Johnson & Johnson, "in 1993, it is overdue.''

Copies of the report, "Why Child Care Matters: Preparing Young Children for a More Productive America,'' are available for $14.50 each, plus $1.50 for shipping, from the Committee for Economic Development, 477 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.

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