Thursday, November 16, 2017

Five insights from the Early Childhood Cost of Quality study process

by Cory Curl 

Today, the Prichard Committee released the results of its Early Childhood Cost of Quality study. The study has been a year-long effort to provide state and local leaders with solid information they can use when making budget decisions designed to increase access to quality learning environments for Kentucky’s youngest children.

Throughout this year, Prichard Committee staff have worked with a statewide advisory group, national experts, and other partners through the process of collecting data and developing cost models. We also spent a lot of time interviewing school district preschool directors and child care center directors to learn about how they target limited resources to provide quality learning environments.

The highlight of the year, by far, was visiting with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers – and their teachers – throughout the Commonwealth.

Here are five of the insights we learned through this journey:

1. Quality can come down to two basic factors - encouraging teacher-student interactions that promote learning, and supporting the specialized needs of children and their families. The first factor is well-established in the research, reinforcing the need for smaller teacher-student ratios and professional training and compensation for teachers. Our visits elevated the urgent need for the second dimension of quality. We visited a few child care centers with professional staff and space for therapeutic services for children with special needs. We visited a few school districts with staff who support families in building safe, nurturing home environments for preschool children. The need for both was clear. As a result, we built in these types of staff and services into our cost models at higher levels of quality.

2. The majority of children served in Kentucky’s preschool program have special needs. Kentucky school districts administer the state preschool program, which serves nearly 10,000 3- and 4-year olds with special needs (including around 650 with severe or multiple disabilities) and about 9,200 4-year olds in families with incomes below 160% of the federal poverty level. Classes may include as many as 20 children, and often more than half have special needs. Each classroom typically has one lead teacher and one instructional assistant. The lead teacher must hold a bachelor’s degree and interdisciplinary early childhood education (IECE) credential, which includes special education. Given the population of students served in the program, some districts have prioritized having smaller class sizes and/or additional assistants with training in special education. Our cost model builds in smaller class sizes at higher levels of quality, additional instructional assistants, and specialists to service specific child needs.

3. Quality child care is often out of reach for low-income working families. The study, our visits, and the cost model all reinforced the incredible financial challenge of sustaining a child care center, as well as the personal financial challenge to directors, teachers, and other staff who work in centers with low compensation, often without health insurance or other benefits. Today, 50% of Kentuckians live in child care deserts and many struggle to afford quality care. To help families work and to enhance quality, Kentucky’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) reimburses child care centers for providing early care and education to about 27,000 babies, toddlers, and preschoolers in working families who earn less than 160% of the federal poverty level. Our child care cost model found that the cost of providing high-quality care and education in child care centers is much higher than the state’s reimbursement rates, particularly for babies and toddlers. This was not surprising. What did surprise us was learning how much CCAP-eligible families still pay for child care through a co-pay and  what we call a “double co-pay”. For example, a center may charge $22/day for tuition for 3-year olds. The state reimbursement rate may be $18/day, of which parents pay a co-pay of $10/day. They may also pay the $4/day “double co-pay” –- the difference between the reimbursement rate and the tuition rate. Ultimately, the state reimburses the center $8/day ($160/month) while the parent pays $14/day ($280/month). Faced with these costs, low-income working families may opt to enroll their children in centers based only on what they can afford rather than quality.

4. Local communities can design options to work for a variety of families. As we interviewed and traveled throughout the state, we saw a lot of variation across local communities in the way they are providing quality early childhood experiences to meet families’ needs. Some school districts emphasize small class sizes in a half-day preschool program while others stretch resources to offer full-day programs. Partnerships across child care, school districts, and Head Start better coordinate resources and provide more flexibility for families. Many districts allocate substantial resources to provide transportation for preschool students to remove barriers to enrollment. We concluded that there is no one-size-fits-all model for quality early care and education, and that local leaders use funds to support options specific to needs in their community.

5. Early childhood leaders want to better serve more families. We designed the study to illuminate the cost drivers for quality early childhood environments. In our interviews with preschool and child care directors, we also asked a general question about their aspirations. If they had more funding, how would they prioritize it? Many times, they answered with a quick and emphatic, “Serve more families and children in need!” This was another reminder to us that both quality and opportunity are essential for Kentucky’s children.

Our hope is that the Early Childhood Cost of Quality study informs the critical decisions in Frankfort and in local communities about the level of investment needed for each child to thrive in quality early learning environments. We are grateful to all of those who provided guidance, assistance, information, and encouragement along the journey.

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