On December 13, 2018, the Bipartisan Policy Center released Creating an Integrated Efficient Early Care and Education System to Support Children and Families: A State-by-State Analysis and hosted a webinar about the report. The report, state fact sheets, and webinar recording are available on BPC’s website. This supplemental Q&A covers some of the questions we received during the webinar, as well as more general questions about the report.
There is widespread concern that too many American children are not getting the healthy start in life they deserve in order to reach their full potential. Some argue that this is because of lack of funding. Others argue that the current levels of support would be sufficient if only government programs were serving children more efficiently. Several Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports have examined the issues of fragmentation, overlap, and duplication but always with a focus on the federal level. It is less clear how federal policy is translated at the state level and ultimately how this affects families.
The federal government has improved coordination over the years, particularly between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. Yet, it is actually state fragmentation of early learning services that most affects the ability of families to receive the help they need for children. That’s why BPC set out to explore state administration, governance models, and coordination of related programs.
Our review showed that there are improvements to be made at every level of government, but the ultimate decisions to improve efficiency and reduce fragmentation rests with governors. That said, governors sometimes fail to recognize how much latitude they have to innovate and improve the organization and implementation of their early care and education (ECE) programs. In addition, overcoming the common tendency of bureaucratic entities to protect their funding streams and their policy prerogatives by resisting integration and even coordination remains an ongoing challenge. It is our hope that, by calling attention to this, governors will be more aware of their options. We hope that our report will enable governors to rethink how to best organize ECE programs so that families can more easily receive the help they need.
First and most importantly, fragmentation of services poses real obstacles to access for families and children. When families must apply to multiple programs, housed across many agencies, often with duplicative paperwork requirements and inconsistent eligibility criteria, many simply give up. As a result, children are denied the quality early care and learning they need and deserve. And for many parents, navigating the complex early childhood system takes time away from family and work responsibilities.
Second, early childhood programs can only be sustained if the programs are viewed as effective and efficient in their use of public fund. At a time when demand for ECE services continues to far outpace available resources, the case for continued and even expanded investment must be accompanied by a commitment to efficiency, good governance and a consistent focus on quality assurance and accountability. Only a small fraction of eligible children receive assistance, so there is no room for inefficiency in administration. Every dollar matters.
It’s also important that policymakers receive the data and information they need to better understand reach and need for services. However, between data gaps (where programs are not required to report the number of children receiving assistance like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds used for child care) or siloed data by funding stream rather than unique counts, it’s hard for policymakers to recommend strategic investments based on the number of children receiving help and the universe of eligible children.
The focus on integration and alignment is not a mere academic exercise designed to satisfy abstract notions of organizational efficiency. Rather these issues matter on the ground, in the everyday lives of families with young children who too often have trouble determining what services they might be eligible for, let alone how to go about accessing them.
Just like families, child care providers often must navigate complicated requirements through multiple government agencies. When subsidy administration and quality improvement activities are spread across multiple agencies, child care providers caring for children receiving subsidies may have to deal with one office to ensure they receive a subsidy payment, a different office to be licensed, and a third office to participate in the quality rating and improvement system (QRIS).
Lack of coordination across monitoring systems can also take a provider away from focusing on providing high quality care to children. Without integration, one provider may receive multiple monitoring visits each year from different agencies with different requirements based on the funding stream involved (like licensing, QRIS, CACFP, etc.). Providers must take time from their programs or families to prepare for a visit from the licensing agency at one time in the year and then a few months later to prepare for a visit from the QRIS monitor and then maybe a separate inspection for the Child and Adult Care Food Program. While monitoring and inspection is important, integration at the state level can ensure that it is effective in protecting children and ensuring compliance without being an additional burden on child care providers.
Governors from both parties recognize the importance of an early care and education system that provides opportunities for parents and a strong foundation for young children. This report provides data and recommendations on how to use their state flexibility to create a more efficient and effective system to help all families. Our goal is to give governors a roadmap for examining their state’s ECE system and identifying ways they can leverage administrative flexibility to improve coordination and integration across programs.
Our state-level recommendations are targeted at governors because governors are the officials designated to make the decisions regarding the administration of these ECE programs. Where state legislators are involved in decisions about ECE administration, they should consider the data and recommendations in the report to help move their state to a more efficient and effective ECE system.
The lack of an integrated and coordinated system makes navigating the systems difficult for parents and child care providers, which can hinder their ability to access the support and care they need. However, it’s only one piece of a larger issue. For example, only a small percentage of families that qualify for child care assistance receive subsidies. According to the latest GAO Study completed in 2017, only 11 percent of federally eligible children are getting the child care assistance they need. And often families who do receive subsidies may have co-payments or additional provider payments that make certain kinds of care unaffordable and limit their choices. While the goal of this report is to move states to implement more aligned ECE systems, alignment is not a substitute for the increased funding necessary to reach the millions of working families who cannot access affordable high-quality ECE.
The historic increase in CCDBG funding has been critical to helping states finish implementing the reforms included in the bipartisan reauthorization of the CCDBG Act in 2014. With states eliminating wait lists or increasing eligibility levels, the increased funding is already making a difference for families across the country. However, to make lasting change, these funds will need to be maintained and increased in future budgets.
The goal of this report is to move states to implement more aligned ECE systems, alignment is not a substitute for the increased funding necessary to reach the millions of working families who cannot access affordable high-quality ECE.
When BPC started this report, we expected a lot of our findings and recommendations to focus on the federal government and Congress, like the multiple GAO reports on overlap and duplication in federal early care and education programs. However, through our research, it became clear that governors and states have a lot of flexibility when it comes to how they administer ECE programs. In fact, there’s only one program, IDEA Part B Section 619 for children ages three to five, that the federal government mandates be administered by a specific state agency. Governors have wide discretion regarding the administration and coordination of these funds, and they should use it. The report does include recommendations for Congress and federal agencies to address the areas that limit administrative flexibility in other areas.
Federal requirements make aligning eligibility across all ECE programs difficult without congressional action, but states do have some flexibility to align certain parts of ECE programs. For example, while CCDF eligibility periods cannot be shorter than 12 months, states can give parents longer eligibility periods to align with Head Start or Early Head Start.
States can transfer TANF funds to CCDF, spend TANF funds directly on child care, or both. There are significant differences between transferring TANF funds and spending them directly that can have an impact on the administration of ECE in a state as well as on the safety of children.
TANF funds transferred to CCDF are subject to all the requirements of CCDF. However, TANF funds spent directly on child care are not subject to any of the federal requirements governing CCDF. This includes everything from not requiring child care providers to complete background checks and health and safety training to not requiring that eligible children receive a stable 12-month subsidy. It also means that states are not required to report any data other than the total amount of TANF funds spent directly on child care. Since there is no federal requirement to report data related to those expenditures, it is not known how many children received assistance through TANF, the type of care children received, or the average amount and duration of child care assistance.
Transferring TANF funds to CCDF supports alignment of administration, requirements, and data, which is why bonus points were awarded to states that transfer their TANF funds and not just spend directly on child care.
BPC reviewed publicly available data as well as program and state websites and worked with individual states to collect and verify the information. We did not look at formal agreements between agencies. Instead, we relied on the public data and information provided by state contacts. Data verification took several months.