Families struggle to provide quality early experiences for their children. Having a stay-at-home parent does not automatically ensure a child’s emotional well-being, social competence, and kindergarten readiness. Stay-at-home parents need access to sound advice and support. Community interventions can improve parenting and early experiences for young children, but they are not universally available, even to high-risk families. Families that rely on child care need access to affordable, high-quality programs. However, most child care centers in the United States are rated poor to mediocre in quality, with almost half meeting less than minimal standards. Efforts to improve the quality of early education and child care through federal, state, and local public policies address licensing and regulation, teacher or caregiver education and compensation, and adequate funding.
State licensing standards are important for health, safety, and teacher qualifications, but they set a minimum standard, typically considerably below the recommendations of health and safety experts. National organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Public Health Association, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Child Welfare League of America, and Zero to Three have developed standards and voluntary systems of accreditation that are often higher than state licensing regulations. These regulations include information about physical space, staffing ratios, and staff training and compensation.
Adequate compensation of early education providers promotes quality, not only to attract quality directors and teachers but also to decrease staff turnover. An underpaid and high-turnover workforce impedes stability and quality of programs. The low level of compensation (approximately $16000 per year for a child care provider) makes attracting and keeping quality teachers extremely difficult for programs. Yet, developmental brain science studies show that young children, especially infants and toddlers, need stable, positive relationships with their caregivers.
Public funding for quality programs is inadequate, yet studies demonstrate that well-focused investments in quality early education and child care provide high public return. Federal, state, and local funding levels do not provide sufficient resources, even when combined with parent fees, to ensure adequate training of the early education workforce and do not provide reasonable compensation and career advancement opportunities. In many states, the cost of early education and child care programs is about twice as expensive as paying for 1 year of tuition at a 4-year public college. The federal government and some communities have addressed the funding problems via subsidies, although many families who are eligible are not served. Head Start serves only approximately 60% of all eligible 3- to 4-year-old children, Early Head Start serves less than 5% of all eligible infants and families, and less than one fifth of all eligible families are receiving federal child care subsidies. Other innovative strategies promoting access to quality care and education include state initiatives to promote formal education and improved compensation for child care providers, linkages with health care professionals, public-private funding partnerships, and extending K-12 down to universal preschool programs. The real barrier to high-quality programs is a lack of infrastructure supporting quality, regardless of setting, and the necessary funding to make this happen. This infrastructure has to address, on a statewide or community level, high-quality standards, compensation and training for teachers, tracking of availability of services for parental referral, and a reliable financing system that makes these programs available (full day/full year, etc) and affordable in a coordinated way. This same systematic approach to the education and socio-emotional health of children who are cared for by stay-at-home parents is also necessary.