Chapter Six: Excellent Childcare
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E: Excellent Childcare
Trading her princess nightgown for jeans and a blue denim jacket, Haylee had her binky clipped to her shirt and her hair pulled up into pigtails with bows. She stepped out of her bedroom that her mom, Kim, had decorated for her in lavender and aqua, ready for her big day. The sun was just starting to peek through her curtains making pools of light on the cozy butterfly quilt on her bed.
It was Haylee’s first day at a childcare center, and Kim’s first day at a new job.
They got in the car and drove down a tree-lined hill, took a left at the stoplight, and then pulled into the daycare about a mile down the street. Kim had looked long and hard for quality care for Haylee that was also affordable and close to home.
Several weeks earlier, after hours of research and touring several childcare facilities—some clearly substandard (one with a frazzled teacher crying into a phone in the corner), some full with long waiting lists, and some with very young teachers surrounded by absolute chaos in their classrooms—Kim saw that many of the childcare workers simply weren’t given the resources they needed to succeed in their classrooms, and that lack of resources came through loud and clear as she toured.
Kim finally chose the center where she was now dropping off Haylee. The center was one of the more expensive and “prestigious” childcare facilities in the area, and although Kim still had some questions about that program, her job was starting, and it was the only real option. There simply weren’t many highquality daycares in Kim’s community.
With her childcare search, Kim joined the more than 30 percent of parents who (according to a 2000 survey commissioned by the I Am Your Child Foundation and Parents magazine) say finding affordable quality childcare is difficult. This lack of accessibility is a key issue, particularly as millions of children need care every day while their parents work. In fact, the Children’s Defense Fund estimates that each day twelve million children under five years old spend time being cared for by someone other than a parent —this is nearly two-thirds of all children in that age group. While this book explores ways to give parents more time with their families through policies like flexible work options and paid family leave, there will always be a need for quality childcare so that parents can work and support their families.
A Children’s Defense Fund study found childcare in the United States costs between $4,000 and $10,000 a year for each child, with the costs rising for babies and younger children, special-needs kids, and kids living in parts of the country where the cost of living is higher. To put this cost in perspective, consider that a full one-quarter of families with children under age six earned less than $25,000 in 2001.
The first day Kim left Haylee, both of them cried. Kim held her tears until the parking lot while Haylee cried hysterically in the classroom. Kim expected that she’d have to deal with some initial separation anxiety, as is the norm with many small children. What she didn’t expect was the callous response from Haylee’s teacher.
Haylee’s main teacher had seemed nice at first, a bit stern perhaps, but nothing stood out as a problem. The morning Kim’s impression of the teacher changed is fixed in her memory: “She started getting borderline mean to the kids, behaving in a way that was odd considering she was working with two- and three-year-old children.” One day when Kim came to pick up Haylee, she first stopped outside the door to look through a window into the classroom and saw Haylee crying. She then heard the teacher say, “Stop crying and acting like a baby.” The teacher proceeded to swat Haylee’s binky out of her mouth, saying, “You’re not a baby. You don’t need a binky, and you should stop crying.” Haylee was two years old.
Kim went to the management and asked to have Haylee transferred out of that teacher’s classroom, which they did. She recalls, “I was miserable and angry with the childcare center, and I was also disappointed in myself for allowing it to happen to my child for the short period of time that it did.” Haylee clearly wasn’t happy in the situation, and Kim felt trapped because she needed to work and there weren’t other obvious childcare options.
Haylee finished out the year doing well in her new classroom. When she moved up a year and started in her third classroom, it became clear to Kim that the high staff turnover was a big problem. It was like a revolving door. By Kim’s count, in Haylee’s series of three classrooms, she had twelve different teachers and assistants. Sadly, Kim was discovering a reality of childcare in this country—that of high staff turnover due to low pay, lack of healthcare benefits, and minimal support for the providers. One study of childcare centers in California found that between 1996 and 2000 there was a 76 percent staff turnover rate. This issue, combined with the fact that the United States has one of the higher students to teacher ratios in the world (the U.S. tied for ninety-first of 151 countries in preprimary student to- staff ratios), is a recipe for poor quality care.
The teacher transitions were hard on the kids in Haylee’s class. Kim recalls, “The kids would get used to a teacher, but then they’d quit and the kids would have to start all over again. And this was in a prestigious preschool which was about $900 per month!” Not only was the teacher turnover and lack of training taking a toll, the cost of even that quality of care was hard to afford for Kim. “The price of that childcare took all of my paycheck, and my parents had to step in to help support us.”
In fact, quality childcare without some type of subsidy is unaffordable for many American families. Consider that a full one quarter of families with children under age six earned less than $25,000 in 2001. Add that to the fact that only one out of seven kids that are federally eligible for childcare assistance actually gets any help. This is a failing system.
In fact, America ranks low in global comparisons of childcare support: The United States ranks twentieth out of seventy-two countries in terms of the percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on early childhood education. A report by the Project on Global Working Families out of Harvard University concludes, “Initial inequities across social class are markedly exacerbated by the public policy decisions the United States has made, including, among others, the failure thus far to provide public preschool or early childhood education to parallel public school. . . . In many other nations, working families can count on publicly guaranteed parental leave; and in many, preschool childcare or early-childhood education is already publicly provided.”
This is a missed opportunity for our country. Excellent childcare has been proven again and again to have longstanding economic and educational benefits. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, as reported by the Children’s Defense Fund, found, “Children in higher quality care for their first four-and-a-half years of life scored higher on tests of cognitive skills, language ability, vocabulary, and short-term memory and attention than children in lower quality care.” One study (Significant Benefits by Lawrence Schweinhart and others) that researched the long-term impacts of good quality childcare for low-income children came to a similar conclusion, the Children’s Defense Fund reports. That study found, “After 27 years, each $1 invested saved over $7 by increasing the likelihood that children would be literate, employed, and enrolled in postsecondary education, and making them less likely to be school dropouts, dependent on welfare, or arrested for criminal activity or delinquency.” Early learning opportunities will help build a generation of responsible, smart, and working adults. Yet these opportunities aren’t widely available in America.
Yasmine Daniel, of the Children’s Defense Fund, is concerned. “We feel childcare should be accessible and affordable to every family, and clearly it’s not when right now childcare costs families between $4,000 and $10,000 per year.” She suggests we think of early childhood education as we think of other education, noting, “When a young adult goes to college we subsidize their education. Ironically, at that point, parents are usually further along in their careers and are often more able to afford the costs of education than when their children are younger and they are just at the beginning of their earning potential. Generally, we are for subsidizing childcare on a sliding scale based on parental income.”
Back at the childcare center, Haylee’s problems were escalating. Although the teachers were nice to the students in her third classroom, they just weren’t very organized or engaged in what was going on with the kids. “Sometimes I’d go there and the teacher wouldn’t even be in the classroom. They’d be in another room, or on the phone a lot,” notes Kim. And Haylee, then four years old, was getting picked on regularly by three other boys in her class. “I told the teachers several times about what was happening to Haylee in her classroom, but nothing changed and the teacher was completely out of it. And then I went to pick up Haylee one day and found out a little boy had kicked her hard in the stomach.”
“That was it for me. The kick in the stomach pushed me over the edge. I took Haylee out and she never went back there,” remembers Kim. At that point Kim’s mom was able to cut back at work and watch Haylee for the next five months. The next year Haylee went to school in a Montessori preschool program, which she loved.
Kim felt enormous relief when she finally found good childcare for Haylee, “There weren’t any screaming kids running around. On my first site visit, I was there for an hour and a half and everything was so under control—the children were smiling, happy, and learning. I wanted to break down and start crying because I felt like such a mean parent for sticking my child in that horrible daycare for two years.” Unfortunately, this Montessori preschool wasn’t initially available for Haylee because at first she was too young to attend, and then she was waitlisted before being admitted. The Montessori preschool was also quite expensive.
Of preschool children in childcare arrangements because their mothers work, 10 percent are cared for by “nannies, babysitters in their homes, or other similar non-relative situations”; 11 percent are in the care of independent, in-home daycare providers; 31 percent are in childcare centers or preschools; and 48 percent are in the care of relatives.
Clearly the quality of care at the first childcare center Haylee attended was substandard; the teachers didn’t have appropriate training, the pay wasn’t high enough to retain good teachers, and the classroom regularly bordered on chaos. Haylee’s experience in the childcare center is particularly troubling because it occurred in a center that was supposedly one of the best in the area. All too often childcare facilities have uneven, poor quality care. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that a study (Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Childcare Centers) examining childcare in four states found, “childcare at most centers in the United States is poor to mediocre,” with 12 percent of centers providing less than minimal quality care—defined as care that could harm “children’s health, safety, and development.” As for the centers that rated well for good quality care, those comprised only 14 percent.
There are a wide variety of childcare configurations, ranging from childcare centers and preschools, to in-home care by independent providers, and informal care by relatives and friends. Though this variety of options sounds comprehensive, they are not numerous enough to provide for all the children who need care. With increasing frequency, grandparents or other relatives, who sometimes fill childcare gaps, are having to work into their later years to support themselves, making them less available for childcare assistance. Families are stretched thin. In fact, due to high costs and otherwise inaccessible programs, many school-age children end up home alone or caring for younger siblings before they are ready to handle that responsibility.
Too few American families have access to excellent childcare, and the poor-quality care many are receiving can harm children in the short-term and effect long-lasting damage: A recent study found that inadequate childcare situations negatively impact future educational achievements, with kids in lower quality childcare scoring lower on cognitive-ability tests. A growing number of families have two parents in the labor force, making excellent childcare a necessity, not a luxury.