In the Arms of the Providers

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A 1995 study by a team of researchers from four universities found that child care at most of nation's centers is of poor to mediocre quality.

Programs are inadequate because parents carry most of the burden of paying for them, advocates say. Providers must keep their fees affordable. They risk cutting back on quality because they must pay their teachers and assistants much less than what they might be earning in other industries. Retaining qualified workers then becomes difficult, creating a revolving door for staff and an unstable environment for children.

Kagan points to a lack of commitment from the government to early education. The country's earliest programs, particularly for poor children, were sponsored by religious and philanthropic groups. When the federal government got involved, services were scattered throughout a variety of departments, creating a hodgepodge of programs with different eligibility requirements and different goals.

In the states, funding for early-childhood programs pale in comparison to other big budget items like roads, prisons, and higher education.

State- and community-level advocates say they're also battling strongly held opinions by some that mothers should stay home with their young children or that the states shouldn't intrude into the business dealings of those who run day-care centers from their homes.

While many in the early-childhood field strongly favor center environments over family-child-care homes, most experts believe that parents should still have a variety of options.

"It doesn't really matter who does it. The issue is the quality of the program," says Barbara Willer, the spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.

In fact, conservatives argue that there is no need for more government-funded services as long as so many parents prefer informal child-care arrangements. In his 1996 book, The End of Welfare: Fighting Poverty in the Civil Society, Michael Tanner, the director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says there's no proof that unregulated care is of low quality.

Hispanics especially are more prone to leave their children with relatives and neighbors instead of using organized centers. But Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley, education researcher who has interviewed Hispanic mothers, finds that the practices used in centers often conflict with those parents' values and beliefs about child-rearing.

While support for the type of system Kagan describes might be scant at the national level, the school-readiness goal has become popular with many governors.

Georgia, for example, uses lottery proceeds to fund a statewide preschool program for 4-year-olds. Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut has proposed spending $16 million over the next two years to operate preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds in the state's four biggest cities.

And Ohio is aiming to increase the number of children attending Head Start. The state will spend $145 million in 1996 and 1997 to serve 75 percent of eligible children. The national average is about 40 percent.

At the February meeting of the National Education Goals Panel, the organization charged with monitoring progress toward the eight national education goals, several governors speculated about how they could nourish this growing interest in the connections between quality child care and later success in school.

"I don't understand culturally how we got into this fix," said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado about the low wages of child-care workers. "Can we bring this fascination with brain research to a sort of national born- againness?"

The message that good early-childhood programs can pay off in higher-performing students is also hooking a lot of corporate executives into the discussion about child care.

"Corporations have a real responsibility to families," says Carole Stein, a senior policy analyst in Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration, which has been involved since 1995 in an effort to entice the private sector into supporting projects that improve and expand child care in the state. Results range from the creation of on-site child-care centers for employees to a loan fund set up by a bank to help family-child-care providers upgrade their homes.

Much of the attention toward these matters has been generated by the federal government's overhaul of the welfare system, which sets a five-year limit on public assistance and mandates that women who previously stayed home with their children while collecting welfare payments get jobs. An increasing demand for child-care subsidies, advocates warn, means that children in their vulnerable early years will be less likely to be cared for by trained caregivers in stimulating environments.

According to a 1995 report from the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, 36 states said they maintained waiting lists for child-care assistance. Others stopped taking names because the chances of those parents receiving subsidies were so remote.

While states are still in the process of writing their welfare reform plans, which are due before July 1, some already are using a substantial portion of their child-care subsidies to put welfare mothers to work. This leaves working poor families with little child-care assistance, forcing them to settle for the least-expensive form of care available, often a relative or an unregulated provider.

States also will try to make those dollars stretch as far as possible.

Providers paid with government subsidies must meet basic health and safety guidelines. But advocates argue that the process usually is as simple as signing a piece of paper, with no one ever following up to check on that home.

"The minimal protections are better than nothing," says Gina Adams, a senior program associate at the cdf. "But some states barely even visit licensed providers."

Because of the widespread use of relatives and unregulated care--particularly for infants, toddlers, and school-age children--efforts are being made to channel child-care-training materials into those homes instead of trying to persuade parents to move their children.

"There's a feeling that this is the lowest quality of care, but there's a real range," says Ann Collins, a program associate at the New York-based National Center for Children in Poverty, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization.

Informal care is also often the only choice for many poor parents in entry-level jobs because they are more likely to work late-night or overnight shifts--a time when the majority of centers and licensed providers don't operate.

Head Start, the 30-year-old, federal preschool program for low-income children, which expanded somewhat from 1990 to 1995, also is facing significant changes brought on by welfare reform.

Because most mothers of these children need to work, the largely half-day, part-year program doesn't always meet their needs for child care.

Robert E. Moman, the director of children and families at the Council for Economic Opportunities in Cleveland, has 100 parents who are leaving Head Start programs run by the agency because they need full-day care.

"They need to take some of that expansion money and make some of those double sessions full-day," he says. "They're not meeting the needs of the families that the programs are designed for."

A variety of arrangements have been made to "wrap" other child-care services around Head Start, but critics say that can still leave children in inferior programs for the rest of the day.

'We do a lot of different things. It's wonderful and it's terrible that we've been working in these vineyards for so long.'

Janet Singerman
Deputy Director
Maryland Committee for Children

Some of the more ambitious directors are attempting to fully blend Head Start and child-care programs--to bring all the children they serve the family-focused approach of Head Start during the hours their parents need to work. But these pioneers have found out how messy it can be to combine programs with different regulations, different staff-training levels, and especially different salary structures without running into a few turf battles.

Just last month, however, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala announced plans to use expansion funds to support additional partnerships like these.

For parents who don't know what type of care situation they want for their child, a resource-and-referral agency often is the only place where this dizzying assortment of programs can begin to make sense.

For providers, the organizations offer an endless supply of knowledge and good advice.

"My heart skips a beat when I look at this," Sandy J. Skolnik, the executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children, says as she proudly flips through a child-care-training calendar that resembles a small college course manual.

One of the 50-year-old agency's more interesting services is called "reStore"--a roomful of industrial-scrap materials, such as billboard paper and plastic film containers, that become treasured art and teaching supplies for providers on tight budgets.

For policymakers, resource-and-referral agencies are a valuable source of demographic data and a consistent voice for children's needs.

"We do a lot of different things," says Janet Singerman, the deputy director of the Maryland group. "It's wonderful and it's terrible that we've been working in these vineyards for so long."

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