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Tight Budgets Force Hard Choices Among Child Care Providers

Funding constraints, high cost of quality leave early learning programs feeling squeezed.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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“An impossible equation.” That’s how Phil Acord describes the challenge of keeping afloat a high-quality early learning program that serves children from low-income families.

As the president of the Chambliss Center for Children, a nonprofit organization that provides around-the-clock care and education to young children in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Acord knows well how difficult it can be for child care providers to simply keep their doors open each month.

“You’ve got a three-legged stool of accessibility, affordability, and quality,” Acord told reporters earlier this month at the Education Writers Association’s early learning seminar in Chicago. “So when you’re trying to ensure quality, you’re trying to do it while serving low-income families who can’t afford to pay you. To give them access and make it affordable is almost an impossible equation.”

Despite a robust body of evidence that children’s experiences in their first few years of life have long-lasting effects on their cognitive and social development, insufficient funding has left many early care and education programs just scraping by, a panel of providers and early learning researchers told reporters.

Early learning programs hold the promise of closing achievement gaps before they start, and setting children up for success in kindergarten and beyond, experts say. But not just any program will do. Children benefit most when they’re in full-day, high-quality programs — those in which they have rich, engaging interactions with highly-qualified staff, and where learning is based on a developmentally-appropriate curriculum, among other factors, the speakers emphasized.

That said, quality doesn’t come cheap, said Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which is based at Rutgers University.

“Decent infant/toddler programs cost, on average, about $13,000 per kid,” Barnett said. ”What really matters is a really competent adult having one-on-one interactions with a child where their really inside a kid’s head. That’s expensive.”

Bundling Head Start With Other Funding Sources

Recognizing the importance of the early years, many developed countries invest heavily in early childhood education programs. But the U.S. isn’t one of them.

Barnett cited an analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that assessed early childhood funding and enrollment across 36 industrialized nations. On average, the analysis found, these countries spend about 0.8 percent of their GDP on early childhood programs. The U.S., on the other hand, spends about 0.4 percent. View Barnett’s full presentation here.

To be sure, a number of programs at the federal and state levels help providers pay for the high costs that come with high-quality care. The federal government spends more than $15 billion annually on early learning through Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). And, depending on where they are, providers may receive additional funds from a state or city’s pre-K program.

But despite the many funding streams, “only a few of them have any real money,” said Barnett — so providers are left combining, or “braiding”, the various sources of funding together to keep their program open.

“You could not provide a year of decent service to a kid if you did not combine all those funding streams,” Barnett said. “A lot of people think this is double dipping, … but it’s more like Head Start’s paying for the first half of the day, pre-K’s paying for the second half of the day, and [CCDBG] is paying for the wraparound services.”

Navigating those different funding sources is no easy task for directors of early learning programs, said Teri Talan, a senior policy advisor to the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

“The responsibility of braiding funding involves being aware of different deadlines, having different standards to follow, different eligibility thresholds for children, and it includes different requirements of the teaching staff,” Talan said during the EWA event. ”So when we talk about blending and braiding funding, it’s really very complex.”

Despite the complexities, in most states, the responsibility of blending and braiding different funding streams falls on the program directors themselves.

“But guess what? We have almost no requirements for preparation of those program leaders at the site level,” Talan said. “There is such a lack of consistency in terms of preparation.”

State, Local Spending on the Rise

Faced with a dizzying array of funding streams that, even when combined, often don’t cover the high cost of care, providers often face a series of difficult choices: Do they cut back on the number of hours they’re open? Reduce the wraparound and support services to families? Lower teachers’ wages?

The consequences of any such moves can be devastating for children and families, Acord said.

“A working parent doesn’t work four hours a day,” he said. “When you go out and eat a meal, where’s the waitress’ child? … Oftentimes, we forget about who’s providing care for those children outside of those conventional hours.”

And even programs that maintain a high level of quality often are able to do so on the backs of their employees, Acord said. Indeed, the men and women who work with the youngest children, those between birth to age five, often make near-poverty level wages, according to research from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. And nearly half qualify for public assistance.

Despite the immense financial challenges providers face, they can find some hope in the fact that state and local spending on early childhood education has generally been increasing over the past decade or so, Barnett said. NIEER has tracked state preschool spending since 2003.

“State and local spending [on preschool] is several times higher in real dollars than it was even ten years ago,” Barnett said. “We’ve seen a big change.”

If you ask Acord, that change can’t happen fast enough.

“This is about the financial and economic health of our community and our future workforce,” Acord said. “And we are the first step.”