We’re missing a staggering amount of information around early care and education – here’s why that needs to change

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As Ashley LiBetti explains in her brief in From Pandemic to Progress, millions of families use home-based child care (HBCC). But even though home-based child care represents a substantial portion of the early care and education market, we lack important information about HBCC. If we are going to get serious about supporting and improving HBCC, we need to collect better information — and then make sure state governments know how to actually use that information. 

Home-based child care is critical for families — especially for households with immigrant and dual-language children, rural populations, families with non-standard work hours, and other communities that are more likely to have a hard time finding the care they need. But while there are millions of children receiving HBCC, we don’t do a good job of keeping track of who these children are, what services they receive, and what happens to them when they enter the K-12 system. 

We also lack information about HBCC providers. We do know that HBCC settings are diverse; they include both licensed and license-exempt providers, as well as family, friend, and neighbor care (FFN). We also know that many FFN providers enter the system to serve a particular child or group of children, not to make a career of it. In all likelihood the cost-benefit analysis of tracking FFN providers who care for only one or two children isn’t worth it — especially given privacy concerns and FFN providers’ limited capacity. 

But there is more we can do to track the experiences and outcomes of non-FFN HBCC providers. Better data is critical to developing effective strategies for improving HBCC circumstances, and ultimately child outcomes. Early care and education is a complex market in which “supply” and “demand” are not well understood. States often think of “supply” in terms of publicly-funded slots — which is far from the entire market, particularly when it comes to HBCC. Indeed, in many instances the services parents want aren’t actually available, or are extremely hard to find.  

Of course, even non-FFN HBCC providers are small and have limited capacity. These providers are also justifiably concerned about the burden of information collection imposed on them by states and cities. This is particularly true when collection requirements are dictated by statutes or regulations that do not adequately account for the realities of HBCC businesses. Any efforts at data collection must be sensitive to these issues.

But there is a real need to collect that data, and a potential benefit to the providers in delivering it. As long as states don’t understand the dynamics of the early childhood market, they are likely to continue enacting requirements that make it difficult for non-FFN HBCC businesses to operate. Policy choices states make with regard to state-funded preschool and subsidized child care can have a major impact on HBCC businesses. If states don’t know enough about how HBCC businesses operate, they are likely to make decisions that don’t take proper account of their role in the market. 

Even when states have decent information, they struggle to maintain the analytic capacity needed to make sense of the data they collect. And whatever child care data governments have usually can’t be linked to data about preschool, K-12, or federally-funded Head Start programs. States need to build integrated data systems that allow them to actually capture the role of HBCC in the market, and then develop the capacity to make sense of that data. Then they can make decisions and provide supports that will help HBCC providers thrive.

Improving what we know about home-based child care can help us better understand the critical role it plays in state early childhood systems, and provide important context for any proposals to improve HBCC. Without that context, even the best ideas may amount to a shot in the dark. 

Elliot Regenstein is Partner at Foresight Law + Policy, and Chris Strausz-Clark is Principal at 3Si.