Study Envisions Ordered System for Child Care

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By 2010, the nation should have a well-organized system of child care and early-childhood education that is governed by state and local boards, financed by a variety of revenue sources, and requires virtually everyone who is paid for working with young children to have a credential.

That's the vision of a new and long-awaited report, released in time for this week's annual convention of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which will draw thousands of early-childhood educators and members of the child-care field to Anaheim, Calif.

Four years in the making, "Not By Chance: Creating an Early Care and Education System for America's Children" contains the recommendations of the Quality 2000 Initiative, a team of experts from a variety of fields, including business, political science, economics, and sociology.

Dozens of past reports have outlined what child-care advocates call a "trilemma"--the difficulty of finding care that is accessible, affordable, and of high quality. Others have described the current system as a patchwork quilt with a lot of holes.

But this is the first document, according to Sharon L. Kagan, a Yale University researcher and the report's lead author, to focus on specific solutions and suggest ways to structure a system in which excellent programs are open to all children younger than 5 whose parents want to enroll them.

"This is not a bunch of advocates," Ms. Kagan said. "It really is research-based."

Ms. Kagan doesn't call for eliminating the wide variety of child-care centers, family child-care homes, church-based programs, and preschools that now exist. But she does talk about strengthening the "infrastructure"--the training, funding, and licensing that support them.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom, but let's make sure the soil in which they are growing is nourishing," she said in an interview last week.

High-Profile Issue

Although "Not By Chance" was close to being released earlier this year, it now comes after the issues of early-childhood development and education have been in the spotlight for several months.

Since January, there have been two special White House conferences on young children, two National Governors' Association meetings devoted to the topic, a nationwide public-engagement campaign chaired by actor and director Rob Reiner, and a network television show.

"The timing is good, now that you've got a lot of increased attention by governors. Even the 'nanny trial' is stirring media attention," about who cares for young children, said Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the NAEYC. In the past few weeks, Court TV aired the so-called nanny trial of a British au pair who was convicted of murdering a young child she looked after in Massachusetts. The trial provoked intense debate about who cares for children in the United States.

In recent years, several governors have also launched new early-childhood initiatives, and state spending on child care and preschool programs has been increasing. But no one, Ms. Kagan said, is addressing the matter in a comprehensive way.

"We've got to be more 'planful' about this," she said, drawing a comparison to the nation's highway system. "Our kids deserve as much as our cars."

Focus on Results

"Not By Chance," which was underwritten by five private foundations, also challenges parents to become more knowledgeable and involved in the child-care and early education settings they choose, and urges employers to become more "family friendly" by contributing to a paid parental-leave program.

While the report recommends that more programs become accredited and training requirements for providers be increased, it also aims to shift the emphasis away from so-called inputs--such as staff-child ratios--and toward results, similar to recent reform efforts in K-12 education.

Just as it did with the eight national education goals, the federal government, the report says, should identify goals for preschool-age children that would be used to guide states in designing their own standards.

In addition, "child sensitive" assessments need to be devised to measure children's progress, and the results need to be used to improve practice, Ms. Kagan said.

"That's a very broad and daring proposal," William Gormley, a professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University in Washington and a member of the Quality 2000 team, said of the assessment recommendation. "It's much more difficult to measure the results of early care and education than to measure the results of elementary and secondary education."

The report doesn't attach a price tag to the system it describes. But the Quality 2000 team did review the variety of funding proposals that have been constructed in the past, and recommends that leaders in the field first agree on how much they believe this infrastructure would cost before they start asking for money.

The report also calls on the federal government to increase spending for early-care programs in a way that would leverage additional aid at the state and local levels.

At last month's White House conference, President Clinton announced two proposals--training scholarships for child-care providers and criminal-background checks on providers that could be shared among states. ("President Clinton Unveils Proposals To Upgrade Child Care," Oct. 29, 1997.)

He also said he would unveil an additional proposal in his State of the Union Address that would focus on making child care more affordable.

Several leading Democrats in the Senate, led by Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, are also formulating legislation underscoring school readiness and early education.

But Mr. Gormley said he expects change at the federal level to be more incremental than sweeping at this point.

Regulating Grandmothers?

Some observers, however, say the government needs to reduce, instead of increase, its involvement in child care and let parents take the lead.

"A lot of these people would regulate a grandmother," said Darcy Olsen, an entitlements-policy analyst at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Ms. Olsen called Ms. Kagan's approach "elitist," and said child-care advocates are "setting standards that no parent would think is relevant to how their child is raised."

Using data from the 1990 "National Child Care Survey," sponsored by the NAEYC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Ms. Olsen argues that most parents are already happy with their child-care programs. In that study, 79 percent of parents interviewed said they were "very satisfied" with their current arrangement.

"I just don't think we need a federal solution or a federal mandate on this kind of thing," she said. "If the government should do anything, it should help families retain more of their income so they can make the decisions" about child care and preschool.

But Georgetown's Mr. Gormley said he doesn't put much stock in parent satisfaction as a way to gauge the quality of a program.

"Parents lack information about what goes on inside day-care centers," he said. "They lack information about how to judge the technologies that are being used."

A proposal that Mr. Gormley believes would win wide support is a one-year, paid, voluntary parental-leave program in which the government would pay 40 percent of the federal minimum wage for a new parent and an employer would pay 40 percent.

Most parents now have to take unpaid leave if they want to stay home with their babies for an extended period of time.

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