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Parents' Child-Care Choices Send Mixed Message on Quality

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Washington

Although convenience, cost, and quality are key factors for parents in making child-care choices, their conceptions of quality differ for different types of providers and do not always match those of experts, a new study shows.

The study by Sandra Hofferth, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, analyzes data on parents' child-care arrangements and provider characteristics from the National Child-Care Survey and the Profile of Child-Care Settings, two federally funded studies.

Completed in 1990, the two studies include the most comprehensive data available on the topic, based on some 4,400 households and 2,700 child-care centers and family-day-care homes in 144 counties.

Describing her re-analysis of the data at an Urban Institute presentation here last week, Ms. Hofferth said availability--defined in terms of geographical proximity to the parent--had the "largest effect'' on parents' choices.

A close second was price, a factor seen as equally significant across income groups after controlling for the mother's wages and other family income.

The analysis has implications for efforts to provide child-care services under President Clinton's anticipated overhaul of the welfare system, Ms. Hofferth suggested.

"What is important to parents will determine the outcome of our policies,'' she said.

Inconsistency on Quality

While parents uniformly cited the importance of quality, Ms. Hofferth noted, there was only "weak'' and inconsistent evidence that they chose child-care settings based on the criteria that experts often use to gauge quality.

Parents were slightly more likely to use family-day-care homes with lower child-staff ratios, she said. But they were more likely to pick center-based programs that had higher ratios of children to staff.

Parents were more inclined to use child-care centers that had trained providers, on the other hand, but less likely to use family-day-care homes with trained staff.

Parents tend to value sensitivity and interpersonal skills more than training when choosing settings for the younger children served in family day care, Ms. Hofferth noted.

They also tend to have more accurate perceptions about price and availability than about such factors as ratios and training, she said.

Still, Ms. Hofferth stated in a paper on the study, "We need to be cautious about what we call 'high quality,' since some of the characteristics of programs that have been taken to mean quality ... are not necessarily highly valued by parents in their decisionmaking.''

Because cost is such a consistent constraint, especially for lower-middle-income families, Ms. Hofferth said, policymakers should consider raising public subsidies to reach families with incomes above the poverty line but below 75 percent of the median income.

States should reconsider their regulatory policies, she said, and provider training "should be accompanied by parent education on its benefits.''

The study, "Bringing Parents and Employers Back In: The Implications of New Findings for Child-Care Policy,'' is due out this year.

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