As any new parent will attest, the lack of high-quality care for infants and toddlers is at a crisis level in the United States. Even if families can find child care, the high cost makes it unattainable for most of them. In fact, in 33 states, the cost of infant care is higher than the cost of in-state tuition at a public university. This simply does not work for the vast majority of low-income and working families. This crisis has reached a boiling point. So much so, according to a recent survey by The New York Times, that Americans are having fewer babies. The number-one reason cited? Child care is too expensive.
There are several reasons for these high costs. First, because infants require constant attention and supervision, the adult-to-child ratio required to safely and appropriately care for an infant is low (each adult is assigned fewer children). That means providers need more adults. This simple fact makes the cost of providing infant care much higher, given that staff are the highest expense in any business. The typical teacher-to-child ratio for 3- and 4-year-olds is generally triple that of infants. Second, because infant care costs more than care for older children, the private child care business model relies on the income from the 3- and 4-years olds to essentially subsidize or offset the higher costs for infants. However, as states create and expand public pre-K programs, more preschool-age children are leaving the private child care market, which is challenging the private business model. Third, many low-income families rely on state subsidies provided through the federal Child Care and Developmental Block Grant (CCDBG) to help pay for care. In 2014, the average value of the child care voucher was approximately $5,600. In comparison, states and communities indicate that the true cost of providing high-quality infant and toddler care ranges between $12,000 and $21,000 per year. Families cannot make up the difference, and, as a result, child care programs that accept subsidized children are barely able to cover health and safety requirements, let alone provide high-quality programming.
Created by Congress in 2014, the Early Head Start–Child Care Partnerships (EHS-CCP) program is an attempt to address these issues and expand access to high-quality infant and toddler care for low-income working families. Head Start grantees partner with local child care programs, which agree to meet Head Start Program Performance Standards, and in exchange, the child care partners receive additional funds and a rich array of resources, coaching, and technical assistance to improve the quality of their services. The goal is to increase per-child funding for infants and toddlers in child care programs to a level commensurate with per-child funding in Early Head Start.
The model is intended to demonstrate that child care programs can improve the quality of the services they provide if they have the resources to do so. The partnership program is also designed to provide enough flexibility for local innovation while both ensuring a base level of accountability for public money and guaranteeing all children access to a base level of quality. Congress initially appropriated $500 million to fund the initiative. Grants were awarded on a competitive basis, and at least one project is now funded in each state (see Appendix for a full list).
The EHS-CCP program is once again making Head Start one of the nation’s best learning laboratories. The program increases the number of infants and toddlers being served in high-quality programs—by more than 30,000 so far—and indirectly improves the quality of care for thousands more children. Additionally, thousands more parents are now actively engaged in the early care and learning of their children. Through the EHS-CCP, child care providers, on average, receive twice the funding they would have received using the CCDBG vouchers exclusively. The EHS-CCP infuses funds into a starving child care system and provides a level of funding sufficient to allow providers to stay financially afloat, even when 3- and 4-year-olds are being served elsewhere. Not only do child care providers meet all Head Start health and safety standards; they provide structured early learning activities for children and comprehensive services, such as nutrition, vision, hearing, and developmental screenings.
The EHS-CCP also addresses the needs of the child care workforce by funding the education of thousands of providers for entry-level credentials, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees, in addition to training and coaching. In many cases, teachers also receive higher wages. Opening these pathways of professional development and degree attainment for providers can be life changing, particularly for a workforce whose median income makes them eligible for food assistance in every state in the nation.
Implementation of the partnerships is both challenging and rewarding, as the projects profiled in this report describe. They represent a broad diversity of communities, from families living in tribal communities and in rural America to families living in large metropolitan cities. The grantees featured in this report are managed by non-profit organizations, state and city governments, a university, and a local child care resource and referral agency. These grantees, together with their child care partners, represent the best of the early childhood community to innovate and solve local problems.
Now that five years of implementation have passed, the Bipartisan Policy Center urges Congress, the federal government, and states to learn from the EHS-CCP. This program demonstrates that when the federal government gives adequate resources, flexibility, and clear accountability standards, local communities will step up to the challenge. They innovate, find local solutions tailored to meet the needs of their families, and, ultimately, meet the needs of the nation’s low-income working families and their children.
Linda K. Smith