Tag Archives: early education

How Universal Pre-k Broke Subsidized Child Care in D.C.

cribsChild-care costs for infants and toddlers (ages 0-2) in DC are among the highest in the nation — over $23,000 for center-based care for infants. For families for whom that would be almost half their annual income, subsidized child care is increasingly hard to get, and pre-k might be partly to blame. I am a huge fan of D.C.’s investments in high-quality pre-k for three and four year olds, but market impacts of booming pre-k enrollment have made it tougher for child-care providers to accept infants and toddlers at subsidized rates, even in neighborhoods with few high-income families.

Here’s what happened, from a cost-modeling study from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE):*

  • Caring for infants and toddlers is more expensive than caring for three- and four-year-olds. More staff are needed, and more regulations have to be followed in order to meet licensing requirements and qualify as a subsidized child care provider.
  • Child-care subsidies are higher for infants and toddlers, but they’re not nearly enough to cover the full cost of operating a high-quality program. So providers need additional sources of revenue to break even.
  • Serving more three- and four-year-olds is one way to narrow the cost gap while continuing to serve infants and toddlers at subsidized rates. Even with mixed ages, it is still much easier to break even by serving families paying market rates.

What the cost-modeling study doesn’t explicitly say is that school-based pre-k makes the mixed-ages strategy less viable. With 76% of three- and four-year-olds in school-based pre-k, the market for child care in those age groups is now very small. In neighborhoods with higher-income families, child-care providers can stop accepting subsidies, charge (insanely high) market rates, and still have long wait lists. At the same time, in neighborhoods where no one can pay $23,000 for child care, meeting high-quality standards for infants and toddlers with subsidies alone is nearly impossible. As a result, providers are more likely to cut quality in order to cut costs, shut down, or operate illegally. According to information currently available, 88 licensed child-care providers in the whole city accept subsidies and offer full-time infant and toddler care, and only about a third of those earned a “gold” quality rating. If a family needs things like flexible drop-off times or services for disabilities, the options are even scarcer.

Pre-k access and child-care costs are both getting more attention on a local and national scale. But, few media stories point out how intertwined pre-k and child care are in the early care and education market, and how changes to one will impact the other. As more cities look to expand pre-k, access to child care for younger children shouldn’t accidentally take a hit when pre-k thrives, and infant and toddler subsidies should match the cost of high-quality care.

*Disclosure: I am a former OSSE employee, but had no involvement in this study or child-care and pre-k policies while I was there.

Correction: The cost of an infant in a child care center in D.C. is approximately $23,000. The $40,000 number originally stated is the estimated cost for an infant and a four year old combined. Source.

Don’t Ask if Head Start “Works” – That’s Not the Right Question

Head Start is an $8.5 billion federal program, which means everyone loves asking if it “works.” But that’s a useless question.

We know Head Start produces positive outcomes. There’s a substantial body of evidence showing that Head Start improves children’s learning at school entry. Other research shows that Head Start children are more likely to graduate high school and have better adult outcomes than children who did not. And a growing body of research shows that high-quality preschool programs can produce long-lasting gains in children’s school and life outcomes.

But critics of Head Start cite the same studies I just did to make the opposite argument. They have valid points. Not every Head Start program is high quality, for example, so some programs don’t produce these positive gains for students. And the Head Start Impact Study showed that Head Start’s positive effect on test scores fades as children enter the elementary grades.

Both critics and proponents of Head Start are right – which is why the “Does it work?” question is so useless. We already know the answer, and it’s not a clean yes or no. Taken all together, the available evidence shows that Head Start is a valuable program that can get better. Given, instead of asking if Head Start works, we should be asking a better question: How can policymakers and practitioners make Head Start better for children and families?

That’s the question Sara Mead and I – along with Results for America, the Volcker Alliance, and the National Head Start Association – try to answer in our new report, Moneyball for Head Start. We worked with these organizations to develop a vision for improving Head Start outcomes through data, evidence, and evaluation.

Specifically, we call on local grantees, federal policymakers, the research community, and the philanthropic sector to reimagine Head Start’s continuous improvement efforts.

Local grantees: All Head Start grantees need systems of data collection and analysis that support data-informed, evidence-based continuous improvement, leading to better results for children and families.

Federal oversight: The Office of Head Start (OHS), within the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, needs a stronger accountability and performance measurement system. This would allows federal officials to identify and disseminate effective practices of high-performing grantees, identify and intervene in low-performing grantees, and support continuous improvement across Head Start as a whole.

Research and evaluation: Federal policymakers and the philanthropic sector need to support research that builds the knowledge base of what works in Head Start and informs changes in program design and policies. This will require increasing funding for Head Start research, demonstration, and evaluation from less than 0.25 percent of total federal appropriations to 1 percent, and those funds should focus on research that builds knowledge to help grantees improve their quality and outcomes.

Philanthropy and the private sector: The philanthropic sector, universities and other research institutions, and the private sector should help build grantee capacity and support the development, evaluation, and dissemination of promising practices.

Fully realizing this vision will require a multi-year commitment. There are steps, however, that Congress and the administration can take to make progress towards these goals. In the paper, we propose several recommendations for federal policy. Taken together, these actions can support Head Start grantees in using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve results for children and families.

What’s the Deal with Pre-K Funding in Maryland?

Earlier this month, U.S. Department of Education awarded Maryland a $15 million Preschool Development Grant. This award recognizes Maryland’s history of leadership in providing quality preschool for low-income students — but it could also increase the complexity and fragmentation of the state’s preschool funding landscape.

And Maryland’s pre-k funding structure is complex enough as it is. Unlike any other state, for the past twelve years Maryland has required districts to offer pre-k through the Bridge to Excellence Act (BTE), but it doesn’t have a dedicated pre-k funding stream to fund that requirement. Through BTE, the state completely revised its school finance structure and increased state aid to public schools by $1.3 billion over six years. In return, districts had to provide fullday kindergarten and at least half-day pre-k for students from families with income levels at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

Because of the structure of the BTE formula, districts that had the most low-income kids to serve got the biggest funding increases. The new formula distributed 74 percent of the additional state aid inverse to local wealth, so less affluent districts received more aid than more affluent districts. Each school district received a base amount and additional funds based on the number of students who receive special education services, who have limited English proficiency, and who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.

From the state perspective, the additional state aid should cover the cost of the pre-k requirement. From a district perspective, pre-k is an unfunded mandate: there’s no distinct, dedicated funding stream for pre-k, as exists in many other states. Maryland districts pay for pre-k out of their general state aid pot.

Fast forward to earlier this year. Maryland passed the Preschool Expansion Act, which created a completely different pre-k initiative. Preschool Expansion is a $4.3 million competitive grant program for children up to 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Now the federal Preschool Development Grant will fund another pre-k initiative for students up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That’s three different pre-k initiatives for three different, but overlapping, student populations.

To be sure, additional pre-k money is good news for Maryland students. And yet, Maryland students (and parents, and schools) deserve some reassurance that there’s a coherent strategy in place. Neither the Preschool Expansion Act nor the Preschool Development Grant directly supports the existing pre-k structure in Maryland. Instead, the state piled on two new initiatives right on top of BTE, which was already the third effort since 1980. The result is a fragmented array of pre-k funding options, none of which perfectly align in services, providers, or priorities.

Maryland isn’t alone in this complex pre-k funding system. Louisiana and New Jersey, also Preschool Development Grant winners, have at least three different, concurrently operating pre-k funding streams that tend to merge and separate over time. State policymakers often have political or pragmatic reasons to create multiple pre-k funding streams – but the result falls short of a cohesive strategy and instead leaves a confused pre-k landscape that is harder to navigate, harder to manage, and harder to sell.

The Problem With Building Programs on Sin Taxes

There’s good news and bad news in Arizona right now. The good news: The smoking rates in Arizona are going down. The bad news: Lower smoking rates mean less pre-k funding. $26 million less, in fact.

That’s because Arizona funds pre-k with a tobacco tax. In 2006, Arizona voters passed Proposition 203, which added a 4-cent tax per cigarette to fund the state’s pre-k program and created a statewide office, First Things First, to oversee the program.

Using tobacco taxes – and other sin taxes – to fund initiatives is a politically popular approach. Set aside for a minute that sin taxes are inherently regressive (e.g., the people footing tobacco taxes generally have lower income and education levels). In Arizona’s case, a tobacco tax feels like a win-win: the state introduces an economic incentive to reduce cigarette consumption and funds early education without going through the vagaries of appropriation.

But Arizona’s experience also shows it’s not a long-term solution to funding early childhood education. The smoking rate in Arizona has decreased over the past several years and, with it, funding for pre-k. In FY09, the state’s tobacco tax pulled in $141 million; the estimate for FY14 is $115 million. First Things First stockpiled money in the first few years because it started collecting taxes before it was required to disburse funding, so right now there’s a cushion. But as less tobacco tax money is coming in, dipping deeper into the fund will be necessary.

Which brings us to the problem with building a program on sin taxes: sometimes incentives work. Tobacco taxes are not a sustainable substitute for state fiscal commitment in early education.

To account for the loss in state funding, First Things First is changing their allocation structure. Right now, pre-k funding flows from First Things First to regional councils to pre-k providers. The regional councils, entirely run by volunteer community members, decide which providers get funding. If selected, a provider typically receives a number of state-funded pre-k slots that correlates with the size and quality of their program.

Starting next July, however, those volunteer-led regional councils will determine both which providers get slots and how many slots they should receive. First Things First will fulfill those requests if they can, funding the highest quality providers first, but there’s no guarantee that providers will receive any funding at all. The short-term consequence is uncertainty; the long-term consequence is fewer students being served.

Arizona isn’t the only state with issues funding pre-k through a sin tax. California is facing decreasing tobacco tax dollars, North Carolina and Georgia have had trouble with inconsistent or insufficient lottery revenue, and Arkansas’ beer tax was all over the place for the few years it existed. (President Obama’s Preschool for All initiative is supposed to be funded through a tobacco tax, but smoking trends nationally are also going down.)

Funding state pre-k through a tobacco tax is politically palatable and a fine place to start looking for funding. But if we’re serious about our commitment to early education, we can’t take the shortsighted, easy win — we need to prepare for the eventuality that the money won’t last forever.