Complex early childhood education system is costly, challenging for families and providers

The first article from our spring print edition focused on early childhood education.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook prepared this report on early childhood education in Philadelphia for our spring print edition before the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We are posting the stories from the print edition online this week along with updates from the providers and advocates we featured. We asked them to explain what they – as well as the city, state, and federal governments – are doing to keep the industry alive so that when normal business resumes, the sector will be prepared. You can read about that here.

As we have already reported, the crisis presents an existential threat to child care and early childhood education in Philadelphia and beyond. Whether for-profit or non-profit, most child care centers operate like small businesses. They rely on government subsidies for low-income users as well tuition from private-pay clients. They need both to survive. As this article explains, the sector has always operated with low margins, and even before the pandemic was facing daunting challenges arising from its fragmented public-private nature.

If nothing else, the pandemic is making everyone more aware how a robust child care sector is necessary to the continuation of commerce and the functioning of society. The effort to keep it from collapse is a harrowing story.

Many thanks to the William Penn Foundation for supporting our coverage of this vital topic.

Early childhood education in Philadelphia — and throughout the state and country — is a hodgepodge of public and private options that is very difficult for families to navigate.

It is marked by a confusing patchwork of funding and a regulatory system that emphasizes compliance rather than quality — not to mention that expenses for families are dizzyingly high even though most workers in the field, virtually all women, barely make enough to live on.

While the issue of affordable child care is getting some mention in the presidential race, starting with Elizabeth Warren, it hasn’t received front-line attention despite its impact on nearly every American family.

In terms of understanding the importance of early learning and the ultimate benefits of high-quality child care on the economy, the U.S. is not only at the bottom of developed countries, “but worse than some developing countries,” said Ann O’Brien, director of Wonderspring, a major early childhood provider in Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

Wonderspring, formerly Montgomery Early Learning Center (MELC), has 10 sites that serve 700 to 800 children every day, including centers in West and Southwest Philadelphia.

Some of the sites serve infants through school age from “a wide range of socioeconomic families,” said O’Brien. By contrast, many centers are largely segregated by race and income, because they are drawing from the neighborhoods in which they are located. Like all providers, Wonderspring must negotiate a array of funding streams and subsidy programs in order to make ends meet.

There are federal grants through Head Start and Early Head Start, the state PreK Counts program, PHLPreK in the city, as well as state child care subsidies. Eligibility criteria for families also vary depending on the program; Head Start families must be at or below 100% of the federal poverty level, while PreK Counts goes up to three times that amount. PHLPreK has no income limit, but it contracts with providers mostly in underserved and low-income neighborhoods.

“The streams of revenue are so fractured, they are very difficult to manage,” O’Brien said. And the total amount of government support is not enough. Plus, it is funneled through an intermediary, most commonly the local school district.

Having private paying families as well as low-income ones is what keeps Wonderspring fiscally solvent, O’Brien said, but other centers aren’t in that position.

Programs also have different requirements for caregivers. In PreK Counts, teachers must be certified, but not in PHLPreK, where only an associate’s degree is necessary. Centers taking PreK Counts money must have 3 or 4 stars under the state’s Keystone STARS rating system, while for PHLPreK 2 stars is acceptable as long as the center is working toward attaining star 3 within a certain period of time.

The paradox of child care is that while it is expensive, and can be prohibitive for families who don’t qualify for any subsidy, caregivers barely make a living wage.

O’Brien said Wonderspring has a teacher with a master’s degree and 47 years of experience who makes $39,000 annually.

Hard to make ends meet

“All of us balance our budgets on the backs of teachers,” O’Brien said. “Revenue is insufficient from every source. We can’t charge what it really costs.”

Government subsidies for low-income families are not sufficient, but even charging private pay families $17,000 a year doesn’t fully cover costs, she said.

Ideally, there would be an integrated pre-K through 12th grade education system that aligned curriculum, she said. Right now, this isn’t happening in Pennsylvania. Even better would be a system that considered the crucial infant care component, since so much of brain development occurs in those years — not to mention the importance of quality care to families with infants and toddlers.

“The younger the child, the more important it is to offer expertise and services with robust oversight,” said Christie Balka, who helped with the launch and development of PHLPreK. Such an ideal system would be “holistic” and attend to the health, social-emotional development, and cognitive needs of children. “It’s a public responsibility,” she said.

At the same time, putting such care under the aegis of the local school district is not necessarily the best approach. This happened in New York City, resulting in the monitoring of centers by people who knew little or nothing about infant and toddler care.

The Philadelphia School District’s Office of Early Childhood Education is led by Deputy Chief Diane Castelbuono, a veteran of the field. She pointed out that Pennsylvania has long had an infrastructure based on private providers. Other states like Oklahoma that moved in the direction of universal pre-K, integrated it into the school system, but this is not an option for Pennsylvania, she said.

“We would have put local providers out of business. That was one of the challenges,” she said, at the same time acknowledging that what exists now is complex, confusing, and overly bureaucratic.

When Mayor Kenney made PHLPreK a centerpiece of his administration, he couldn’t put it in schools only or put it solely under School District jurisdiction. “We had a robust and quality private system with a good quality rating system,” she said. “It’s a real economic and business development area for local folks. We don’t want to put them out of business. It has to be a diverse-provider system.”

At the same time, there are ways to improve what exists now to use the varying funding streams more efficiently and more easily increase the quality of all centers. A good first step would be to increase government subsidies to stabilize the workforce by increasing salaries, she said. As it stands now, teachers certified in early childhood education leave the private centers for jobs in the District, where they can teach through fourth grade and make more money with good benefits. The District directly runs some of the Head Start centers, and contracts out others.

All this is a function of how far behind the U.S. is in treating early childhood and infant care as a public responsibility.

“Other countries believe in paying taxes and allocating money for the right things,” Balka said. “They believe families should be supported to raise children well, and that there is a social and economic benefit to investing in children and families at the beginning of the life cycle. These investments are minimal compared to what is spent later on behavioral health, preventable chronic illness, special education, and all the consequences that follow.”

And the scarcity and turnover of teachers is only likely to get worse in this economy. “Nobody is going to take on debt to become an early childhood teacher,” said O’Brien. She noted that child care workers at or near minimum wage can — and do — quit jobs in early childhood centers for jobs at Target that pay more and come with less stress and fewer responsibilities.

Plus, education schools haven’t caught up to the need for training people in best practices for infants and toddlers, reluctant to invest in preparing people for such a low-paying career.

An issue in the presidential race

The issue is getting more national attention in this election year.

More than a year ago, Elizabeth Warren became the first candidate to address the issue, proposing a plan that would, essentially, expand and build on the current system. To address affordability, quality and low wages for workers, she would create a new federal subsidy — underwritten by a wealth tax — that would be available to state and local governments as well as nonprofits, schools and other partners to create a “network” of options available to all families.

With the federal subsidy, families earning up to 200% of the federal poverty cap would pay nothing for care, and those above would pay no more than 7% of their income.

Last summer, Warren also introduced legislation in the Senate that would implement this plan, allocating $70 billion in federal money for child care and capping expenses for any one family at 7% of the average annual income rate.

Just after the Nevada caucuses in anticipation of the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders released a plan that would not be means-tested, providing a “guarantee” of free child care and pre-K to every family “regardless of income.”

He said that the plan would be paid for by reversing the Trump tax cut that mostly benefited corporations and wealthy individuals.

His plan would also guarantee full-day kindergarten to all students, something that is not now universally available, including in Pennsylvania where many districts offer only half-day options. (Gov. Wolf has proposed making full-day kindergarten mandatory.)

Sanders, demanding that the wealthy and corporations “pay their fair share of taxes,” said a tax on the “extreme wealth” of the top 0.1 percent would raise $1.5 trillion over the next decade to invest in free, universal, quality child care and early education for all. Like Warren, he emphasized that this investment has a later economic return. In addition to helping parents, especially mothers, maintain stable employment, it has a role in launching students on a path to academic success that leads to them needing fewer social services growing up and paying more taxes as adults.

Former vice president Joe Biden has proposed universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds, as part of his education plan. He has not released a comprehensive child care policy, but has spoken in favor of child care tax credits and 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

Under the Trump administration, federal child care subsidies increased by $2.4 billion in the 2019 budget. Due to the increase, Pennsylvania got $70 million more in federal child care funds — but the Republican-dominated legislature responded by cutting state subsidies by $36 million, according to Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

“Instead of seeing this as a political opportunity, they cut the state spending to meet an arbitrary budget mark instead of matching it,” Cooper said. “We think the state should match [federal] increases dollar for dollar.”

For the 2020 budget, the federal increase for child care was $550 million, with Pennsylvania’s share of that amount being $15 million.

Trump’s budget for 2021, unveiled in February, is proposing a $1 billion one-time investment in childcare infrastructure to increase the number of child care centers, including those run by corporations and faith-based organizations. States would apply for a share of the funds, but would have to agree to a regulatory rollback that many proponents of the issue said could compromise safety.

That budget does not address the level of subsidies for providers or families. And some advocacy organizations have labeled Trump’s proposal as a “hoax” because it doesn’t address the issue of subsidies for families or payments to providers.

Cooper said that Trump’s interest in child care is driven in part by daughter Ivanka and by the knowledge that it is an issue for the suburban female voters that he is seeking, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania.

“Trump and Ivanka came to Delaware County and did an entire press conference about child care,” Cooper said. “They know what they’re doing,” adding that in her opinion, “they don’t care about any of this, it’s all orchestrated for reelection.”

She also noted, though, that political alliances on the issue are shifting. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce are also starting to speak out in favor of improving child care services as a way to alleviate a shortage of workers.

Women bear the burden of the country’s inability to grapple successfully with this issue, since mothers are the most likely to limit their employment options and earning potential to take care of young children. In addition, the low-paid child care workers are almost exclusively women.

Another public policy that could favorably impact the quality of early childcare is more widespread family leave. But in the U.S. that is also limited and sporadic, depends on the employer, and is not encouraged or supported by the federal government.

Politically, “We pay lip service to children and families,” said O’Brien of Wonderspring, “but one could say that we care less about the fetus once born.”