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Yale Study Faults Child Care in All 50 States

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Child-care centers in all 50 states are operating under regulations that don't require high-quality care for infants and toddlers, according to a report on the status of state licensing guidelines.

Only 17 states have standards that the researchers described as "minimally acceptable." Four states--Idaho, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Wyoming--were found to have very poor or no regulations at all, and the rest were rated as poor.

The researchers, from Yale University and the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation in New York City, based their evaluation on three categories: caregiver qualifications and training; grouping, meaning staff-to-child ratio and group size; and program, including the facilities, equipment, and approach toward children.

The report, published in the October edition of the Journal of Orthopsychiatry, serves to heighten the attention focused on early childhood education--especially during the first three years of life.

Research and Ratings

"Our new knowledge of rapid brain development in the early years underscores the importance of having enriching environments for our infants and toddlers," said Edward Zigler, a psychology professor at Yale and one of the founders of the federal Head Start preschool program for low-income children.

The report's release also came in the same week that President Clinton held a White House conference on child care, where he announced a proposed $300 million initiative to provide scholarships to 50,000 providers and give them financial incentives to stay in the child-care field. ("President Clinton Unveils Proposals To Upgrade Child Care," Oct. 29, 1997.)

The report confirms what previous studies have suggested: Child-care for children in their earliest years is often the worst.

The standards in only one state--Minnesota--were minimally acceptable or better in all three categories, according to the researchers' tabulations.

The researchers also noted that even when states earned good or acceptable ratings for child-care programs, they had poor or very poor ratings in the other two areas.

Comparing current state regulations with those on the books in 1982, the researchers also found that some states were relaxing training requirements for caregivers.

'A No-Win Situation'

When state officials do attempt to tighten guidelines, they often run up against tremendous opposition.

"It's a no-win situation. You can't please everyone," said Linda McCart, the director of Ohio's Family and Children First Initiative, a statewide effort to improve programs for young children and educate parents about infant development. "There are a whole group of folks that believe that as long as the teacher loves children, it doesn't matter what her qualifications are."

A crucial issue is who would pay for the kinds of improvements the experts espouse.

States fight an ongoing battle to balance "what's good for kids with what's good for business," said Sally Vogler, a policy director in Colorado Gov. Roy Romer's office who heads the state's First Impressions program, an early-childhood initiative.

Ultimately, Ms. Vogler said, the public will have to pay for early education the way it pays for public education. "But I think we're a decade away from that discussion," she said.

Despite the report's findings, numerous child-care centers throughout the country go above and beyond their states' minimum requirements, and many improve their programs to earn accreditation from the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.

A few states, including Florida, North Carolina, and soon Georgia, also offer their own stamps of approval, if centers meet additional standards.

"Our goal is making sure every child, no matter where they live, has access to quality," said Barbara Willer, the spokeswoman for the NAEYC.

The Yale study did not attempt to investigate how thoroughly states enforce the regulations they have. The researchers also did not consider caregiver pay and staff turnover, which also have been found to hurt quality.

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