Child-Care Combat

Debate Over the President's $21 Billion Initiative Will Test the Limits of Decentralization

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Colorful combatants in Washington and across the nation--like jaunty roosters embroiled in a cockfight--remain locked in battle over school choice and whether to further de-center public institutions. They rarely pause and take stock of lessons from neighboring policy arenas. Tireless lunging and pecking at each other has become all-consuming.

All around us--from the local health-maintenance organization to the preschool down the street--public agencies are nurturing choice-oriented, mixed-market incarnations of key human services. This revolution, unfolding outside the smaller circle of would-be school reformers, is blending public authority, targeted attention to quality, and private provision into a decentralized pastiche.

This feverish case of myopia--suffered by many politicians and educators alike--may be remedied by the spotlight President Clinton is shining on the early-education arena. The administration's $21 billion proposal, unveiled in the State of the Union Address, may catch the attention of some K-12 reformers, prompting them to ask: What are we learning from this already vastly decentralized child-care and preschool "system"? How can pro-family politics and sound policy be blended to improve this panoply of 80,000 centers and preschools now serving over 5 million children nationwide? And why has the White House, as well as influential Republican governors, chosen to define a broad public interest in strengthening early education?

In coming months, Congress will be looking more closely at this vast, loose-knit network of centers, preschools, and regulated family day-care homes typically run by mothers who take in other young children. This patchwork quilt of human-scale organizations has operated as a decentralized, mixed market for almost a century. A "devolution revolution" isn't necessary. This sector already borders on dissolution. Vouchers and tax credits now dominate the financing structure. In short, the child-care and early-education world allows us to look into the future of radical decentralization. It's not a pretty picture:

  • Unequal access. Young children of affluent parents, ages 3-5, are almost twice as likely to be attending preschool as are blue-collar youngsters. Our University of California, Berkeley-Harvard University research group in recent years has detailed local disparities in the basic availability of child-care centers as well. Wealthy suburban areas often have three to four times more spaces in preschools than working-poor and working-class communities. Latino enrollments are from 10 percent to 20 percent lower, compared with both African-American and white families, which may help to explain lower reading scores in 1st grade.
  • Uneven quality. Recent studies of child-care and preschool quality have yielded depressing results. A widely cited 1995 study, headed by economist Suzanne Helburn, found that over two-thirds of all centers and preschools studied displayed mediocre quality. The average child-care worker makes less than $11,000 annually. Burger flippers at fast-food restaurants earn more. Almost 200 infants and toddlers literally die in the hands of child-care providers each year, a statistic punctuated in Cambridge, Mass., last fall with the tragic Louise Woodward case.
  • Confusion at the grassroots. This system is certainly pro-choice. And yes, it displays market dynamics right out of an economics textbook. It's primarily financed through parental fees (running up to $8,000 per year), tax credits (primarily for middle-class and yuppie families), and vouchers (aimed at low-income families). The problem is that parent consumers operate from little sound information about the quality of various programs. We are meeting with focus groups in northern California made up of single mothers entering the new welfare system. These women commonly sign up on four different waiting lists, fill out four sets of applications, then wait many months for a child-care slot.
  • Little accountability. No one is in charge. Under the gun to implement welfare reform, counties are trying to rationalize child-care and preschool management. To their shock, they are discovering that programs are run largely in isolation, by the federal Head Start program, state departments of education, churches, for-profit companies, major employers, and local community organizations that disburse child-care vouchers. A thousand flowers have bloomed. But in this brave new world a radically decentralized political economy has been created where local agencies compete for funds and families. Local county agencies have little capacity or legal authority to consolidate existing programs. Market dynamics act to dissolve any nexus of public accountability that attempts to cohere.

Advocates of block grants and the new New Federalism sing praise for decentralizing control over education and child-care programs to the states. We work with many thoughtful early-education administrators in Sacramento, Calif. But they can't tell you how many children are served each year, much less at what level of quality. They have no evidence on the programs' effects on children's early learning and development. State legislatures have been very slow to build planning and analytic capacity inside education or welfare departments in the early-education arena. Meanwhile, Gov. Pete Wilson of California is signaling his journey back to the political center by supporting a doubling of child-care and preschool support to $1.9 billion annually--for a nonsystem that's out of control.

Positive lessons can be gleaned from the nation's archipelago of child-care organizations. First, a rainbow of diverse groups has sprung up to operate centers, preschools, and family day-care homes. Diverse forms of financing, including vouchers, offer incentives for new organizations to sprout and to find a market niche. These organizations must be responsive to the forms of child rearing and cultural preferences demanded by parents. Our own research reveals that many Latino parents avoid formal preschools because they can more readily find a familiar language and preferred ways of socializing their youngsters within day-care homes. The threat of exit has, over time, encouraged Head Start and other preschool managers to listen to their diverse clients and be more responsive.

Second, we are learning that targeted federal and state subsidies can go a long way to equalize access and quality levels. Availability of centers and preschools in some low-income neighborhoods--when situated in politically progressive communities, such as Boston or San Francisco--is approaching supply levels found in middle-class neighborhoods. Research done by Deborah Phillips at the National Academy of Sciences also reveals that surface indicators of quality within inner-city preschools, such as class sizes or child-staff ratios, typically approximate quality levels observed in affluent areas, thanks to targeted subsidies and demanding quality regulations, exercised by state or federal agencies.

But with low training requirements and abysmal pay, inner-city child-care workers tend to display a more uneven curriculum, organize fewer stimulating activities, and show less attachment to their children. At this deeper level of quality, neither market dynamics nor government regulation has delivered.

Few doubt that child care in America is a mess. Employment rates of women with young children have skyrocketed since the "Ozzie and Harriet" days of the 1950s. Even some conservatives now place work over motherhood--at least for poor women--as is manifest in strict welfare-to-work mandates. Republican opposition to Mr. Clinton's child-care proposal has been muted by election-year concerns. Both parties are vying for the 15 percent chunk of swing voters, made up mainly of suburban women who are worried about their child care, family life, and schools. Even as Mr. Clinton's true family values come under intense scrutiny, few in policy circles doubt that government will return to the view that child care is a private issue. The rising commitment of moderate Republicans to boosting children's early learning and mothers' employment opportunities (whether framed for suburban or inner-city families) is key.

The political question--in Washington and the states--thus becomes how to mobilize support for a sustained effort that confronts the maladies suffered by this radically decentralized system. The symbolism must be bold. Just as with the national-exam proposal, the administration is demonstrating that government has an important role to play in defining a common good, a unifying public interest. In the child-care and family-policy arena, any proposal with a $21 billion price tag is certainly viewed as bold. Republican Govs. Wilson of California and George E. Pataki of New York are putting forward equally grand signals and policies. The essential lesson is that even when operating within a historically decentralized context, presidents and governors are eager to put forward centralized signals that government can make a difference.

The rub comes as more money is pumped into the rickety child-care system. If Congress goes along with Mr. Clinton's proposal, most of the $21 billion will not even go to strengthening child-care and preschool organizations. Instead, it will flow down in the form of tax credits for middle-class families ($5.2 billion), credits for employers setting up on-site centers ($1 billion), and parental vouchers contained in block grants to the states that are designated for poor families ($7.5 billion). Only the Head Start organization would receive support for basic infrastructure.

In short, the president's proposal may simply reinforce the decentralized, headless character of child care and early education in America. Last month, The New York Times editorial board spoke out sharply against expanding child-care tax credits. The average family would receive an additional credit of only $350, it said, hardly sufficient to broaden parents' choices or to strengthen the center or day-care arrangement they select.

Yet using the tax code as a policy device has become a favorite scheme among centrist Democrats, who are trying to find common cause with moderate Republicans. This is a replay of Mr. Clinton's tax credits for higher education that moved easily through Congress last year. Once again, government gains legitimacy. Whether this form of targeted tax relief really widens parents' options or strengthens fragile institutions is an entirely different question.

The White House often seems so taken by its centrist strategy that senior staffers rarely ask whether the policies being proposed will actually work: in this case, strengthening fragile preschools or advancing children's early learning. In the new context of a likely budget surplus, the administration is trying to avoid a Congressional feeding frenzy, where tax-cutters and special interests come together to reduce government revenues. The president's child-care initiative is in good part aimed at sustaining a strategy of modest and targeted tax relief.

But tax relief doesn't make for sound education or family policy. Nor is money the only problem in the early-education field. State government officials--especially education departments--need stronger authority and improved capacity simply to define and wrap their arms around the child-care and preschool system. Capacity at the federal level is not much stronger. Presidents Bush and Clinton have poured billions into Head Start. But as a recent General Accounting Office report emphasized, after reading research about the 58 Perry Preschool kids from the 1960s who became lawyers and stockbrokers, it's difficult to find consistent evidence on the actual child-development effects of Head Start. Congress and the states have raised child-care spending dramatically in the wake of welfare reform. But reports from California, Florida, and Illinois show that fewer than one-third of all single mothers on welfare are made aware of, or utilize, their child-care subsidies. These are serious organizational problems that will not be solved by blowing more air into a system that already is about to pop.

These are not arguments for shying away from aggressive policy action--at both federal and state levels--to equalize access to quality child care and preschooling. Mr. Clinton is playing an enormously important role in getting these issues on the table. But the clever theater involved in mobilizing political support may undercut the policies' eventual effects on the ground.

As the dance of child-care legislation unfolds in the coming months, both in Washington and in state capitals, we hope that the preoccupied roosters of school reform will be watching closely. For both camps, the emerging debate over how to fix a vastly marketized system will teach us much about the promise and limits of decentralization.

Vol. 17, Issue 22, Pages 37, 56

Published in Print: February 11, 1998, as Child-Care Combat
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