When it comes to child care, there is no one size fits all approach. Parental decisions about child care are a balance, taking into consideration affordability, what type of care parents prefer and children thrive within, parent work hours, and location. For these reasons, a mixed delivery system that supports Pre-K and other early education programs in community-based, child care settings provide optimal parental choice and foundational supports to strengthen child care programs.
Some states have adopted mixed delivery systems to implement early care and education programs. They achieve multiple goals at once: preserve parent choice and streamline funding. For families, a mixed delivery system allows parents to choose among different program types and select one that best meets their needs, and children can participate in a program that meets their development and learning style. For early learning providers, a mixed delivery system increases fiscal stability by allowing multiple funding streams to support it.
Mixed delivery systems are structured to enable some—or all—publicly-funded Pre-K slots to be offered in diverse settings that meet health, safety, and performance standards. For example, in a mixed delivery system, Pre-K slots are offered in child care programs, including center-based child care and family child care homes, that operate for a full day and full year. This means that a variety of settings can meet a parent’s needs for child care that aligns with their work hours.
Below we describe four states that have successfully implemented a mixed delivery model that supports parental choice and efficiencies within a blended funding system for child care programs. Each of these states have evaluated their approaches and links to the evaluations are provided.
Washington policymakers passed the Early Start Act in 2015, and unified early childhood state agencies and prioritized integrated services between the state’s child care subsidy program and the state’s Pre-K program, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, or ECEAP. ECEAP serves 3- and 4-year-old children in a variety of settings for families at or below 110% the federal poverty level or children on an Individualized Education Program. Some families over the income limit may also qualify. During the 2019-20 school year, ECEAP provided 14,000 children access to Pre-K at more than 390 sites in school districts, center-based child care programs, and family child care. ECEAP is managed through 54 contracts with school districts, child care programs, educational service districts, community colleges, local governments, tribal organizations, and nonprofits.
Additionally, Washington is piloting a companion program, called Early ECEAP, for children birth to 3 years old. Both ECEAP and Early ECEAP are modeled after Head Start, providing comprehensive services in a two-generational model, in addition to full-day, full-year slots for young children.
- Strengths: By partnering two programs—ECEAP and Early ECEAP—Washington provides full-day, full-year services for working families in accessible settings. The companion programs also provide continuity in care for children, as children can transition into ECEAP as they reach preschool age.
- Challenges: A 2016 evaluation noted child care programs would have to absorb some risk of not having eligible children enrolled in the ECEAP program in the future, which could impact business revenue and expenses from year-to-year. Small child care programs were noted as facing challenges to implement comprehensive services with only a few ECEAP slots.
North Carolina operates a consolidated governance structure at the county level for all early childhood programs, including child care subsidy and the state’s Pre-K program, NC Pre-K. NC’s Smart Start is a network of 75 local partnerships that cover all 100 counties. The partnerships consolidate early care and education resources, improve early learning quality, and are responsive to community needs.
As operated by the Smart Start network, NC Pre-K classrooms are implemented in three types of settings: public elementary schools, Head Start programs, and center-based child care, both for‐profit and nonprofit. Of all available NC Pre-K slots, 48% are in public schools, 14% are in Head Start programs, and 38% are in center-based child care. Families whose gross income is at or below 75% of the state median income with a 4-year-old child are eligible for NC Pre-K. Military families may enroll their 4-year-old children regardless of income.
- Strengths: In addition to child care and Pre-K, the Smart Start system oversees early literacy, home visiting, and parent support programs. This one-stop shop approach allows parents to access comprehensive resources efficiently.
- Challenges: Child care programs cite: inadequate reimbursement rates to support the higher standards required by NC Pre‐K and provide compensation parity with NC Pre‐K teachers in public school settings; a shortage of qualified teachers; and transportation challenges for families as reason not to participate in NC Pre-K. Participation in NC Pre-K by child care programs has declined over the last few years, leading to inequitable access to NC Pre-K in some counties, particularly rural communities.
Pennsylvania operates a state-level, consolidated governance structure through one agency that oversees all early care and education programs: including the state-funded Pre-K program Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, or PKC, and child care subsidy. Families at or below 300% of the federal poverty level qualify for PKC. A little more than 50% of the PKC’s slots are in child care programs. The remaining slots are located in Head Start programs, school districts, and Pennsylvania Department of Education-licensed nursery schools. Child care subsidy funding may be “wrapped” around PKC funding to provide a full-day, full-year of care for qualifying families.
- Strengths: Child care providers are supported with technical assistance to develop strategies to braid multiple resources to provide wraparound services to children who need a longer day or a longer program year than provided by Pre-K. PKC child care providers and child care subsidy enrollment offices are required to work together to coordinate services for PKC children who need wraparound child care.
- Challenges: State regulations require PKC classrooms to have a certified teacher and minimum salary levels are encouraged by the PKC performance standards. Pre-K salary levels are higher than average salaries of their child care counterparts. Upon completing their teacher certification, Pre-K teachers sometimes leave the field for the elementary school settings because it offers higher wages and more benefits than child care. Due to these disparities across teacher types, there is a shortage of certified Pre-K teachers, with only 67% of PKC teachers meeting the certification standard.
West Virginia operates a county-level collaborative structure for the implementation of their universal Pre-K program, WV Pre-K. WV Pre-K is available for all 4-year-olds, as well as 3-year-olds with Individual Education Plans. State law requires that 50% of Pre-K classrooms are in community-based settings. Each county is required to have a community stakeholder collaborative team that develops a delivery plan and budget for the county’s Pre-K program slots. Pre-K funding is awarded by a school aid funding formula, and school districts enter into contracts with community providers.
Currently, many of West Virginia’s school districts are above the collaboration requirement—82% of all the fiscal year 2018-2019 WV Pre-K classrooms are in collaborative settings—67% in Head Start classrooms, 15% in child care, and 18% in school districts. For parents that require a full day of child care, the Pre-K portion of a full-day slot is funded by the WV Pre-K. Child care programs are supported to braid other funding steams, such as Head Start, child care subsidy, and parent tuition to provide a full day of care.
- Strengths: County collaborative teams require representatives from both the early childhood and K-12 community, strengthening necessary relationships to support early childhood-to-kindergarten transition.
Mixed delivery systems can strengthen both parental choice and the health of a community’s early care and education market. As the state examples demonstrate, mixed delivery systems can be reflective and flexible. Alongside federal investments in Pre-K, Head Start, and child care, consideration for a seamless implementation of diverse early care and education programs is critical to ensure working parents, young children, and local early care and education programs are best supported.