Early Childhood

Study Flags Wide Disparities in Child-Care Enrollment

November 12, 2013 4 min read

A new report on early-childhood development uses federal data to highlight wide disparities in child-care enrollment between socioeconomic groups and races, as well as disparities in state-level programs. It also outlines steps to bolster services for parents and children.

The report from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation comes at a time when states are straining to improve their own programs in a fragile economy and federal early-learning proposals are at a standstill.

“For children to succeed, we must first dispel the notion that classroom learning is isolated from other aspects of child development,” reads the foundation’s annual “Kids Count” policy report. “Then we must create opportunities for children to develop the full array of competencies that they need to thrive.”

Analyzing Federal Data

The report analyzes data from the federally conducted Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which tracked data on 13,000 young children, beginning with their 1998-99 kindergarten school year and ending in the spring of 2007. The report concludes that by 3rd grade, the cognitive skills of only about a third of the children were developmentally on track—and it flagged significant gaps among subgroups of children.

Of the children whose families had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, for example, 19 percent had age-appropriate cognitive skills at age eight, when most would have been in 3rd grade.

The report also found that Hispanic and black students lagged behind their peers at the same point: 14 percent of black and 19 percent of Hispanic children had age-appropriate cognitive skills. By contrast, 48 percent of white students were on track with cognitive development.

Left Home

A majority of low-income children—63 percent—were not enrolled in a preschool program as of 2011, compared with 45 percent of their more affluent counterparts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage of unenrolled, low-income 3- and 4-year-olds ranged from a high of 78 percent in Nevada to a low of 45 percent in New Jersey.

12Kids C1s

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

At the same time, 63 percent of low-income students ages 3 and 4 were not enrolled in a preschool program, while 45 percent of children whose families were not considered low-income were not enrolled.

The report outlines strategic solutions to ensuring children get the necessary developmental support, especially those children whom the data revealed as most vulnerable to setbacks. These include three primary goals: support for parents; improved access to quality early care and education, health care, and other services; and ensuring that the early child care is comprehensive and coordinated.

The approach stresses the importance of providing support for children and parents in multiple sectors, not just education.

“This is an issue that spans across lots of different departments of government,” said Laura Speer, the associate director for policy reform and advocacy for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Chronic Concerns

By themselves, the data and conclusions presented in the report aren’t particularly striking, according to Kyle Snow, the director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Center for Applied Research, based in Washington.

“We’ve been aware of these differences and disparities for a number of years, and we keep saying, these are the things that would be good ideas or approaches to reducing those disparities, but we’re not seeing the needle move very much,” he said.

Implementing such changes—and doing it well—can be expensive, he said.

Over the past few years, “public funding has been stagnant. And in some ways, relative to inflation, it’s been reduced,” he said.

Despite an uncertain federal budget and continued economic anxieties—or perhaps because of them—the importance of early child care and early education continues to crop up in the national dialogue.

“For many years, we’ve not had a system of early child care and education in this country,” said Elizabeth Burk Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, a state branch of the Casey Foundation’s project to track child well-being. “The report tells us that having real alignment of the work we’re doing with young children across these different domains is critical to the outcomes we need.”

President Barack Obama has stressed the importance of early-childhood education, reflected in his federal Early Learning Initiative, proposed earlier this year. His 10-year, $75 billion universal pre-K plan would require new spending and rely on doubling the federal tobacco tax.

Whether the president’s initiative will ever be fully realized, though, is another question entirely.

“The way the legislature handles the budget, I don’t suspect we’reexpecting to see anything come about soon,” said Mr. Snow.

In an effort to continue to promote early learning, in spite of the congressional gridlock, the administration is funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary aid to states, through Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge awards and Affordable Care Act money, to help states carry out their plans for pre-K and early childcare.

At the state level, support for early child care is varied, with a high of 78 percent of low-income children not attending preschool in Nevada, to a low of 45 percent in New Jersey, the federal data show.

“Every state has different starting points and different infrastructures to build on,” said Ms. Speer.

A recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research, which tracks state policies for providing public money for pre-K programs, says states continue to be vocal supporters of public early-learning programs, but aren’t necessarily providing the funding to follow.

“So we see fluctuations in funding, mostly driven by economic factors,” said Mr. Snow.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as Report Flags Disparities in Child Care

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