Journal Issue: Financing Child Care Volume 6 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1996
Do Parents Choose Child Care on the Basis of Quality?
Parents want the best for their children, and most undoubtedly try to choose a high-quality child care arrangement over a mediocre or poor one. Several research studies suggest, however, that parents and researchers sometimes have conflicting views about what aspects of a child care program are associated with quality. Some studies suggest that parents place cost and convenience above warm interactions with caregivers,15,17 while others find that parents endorse the importance of the nature of the interactions between the child and the caregiver (process quality).18-21 Parents seem to pay little attention to the structural indicators of quality such as regulatory status and caregiver training. For example, an Illinois study indicated that more than 40% of the low-income parents surveyed did not consider it important if their child's provider were licensed,22 and the Study of Family Child Care and Relative Care found that, when asked about their reasons for selecting their current provider, mothers almost never mentioned formal credentials such as education and licensing.
In the CQO study,1 parents and researchers rated the quality of child care provided for the children. While parents said they valued the process characteristics measured by the researchers, they consistently overestimated the quality of care their own children received. That is, parents and researchers agreed about what was important in a child care setting, but the two groups saw the same settings differently: parents perceived care as high in quality while, on average, researchers rated the quality as mediocre. These differences between parent and observer quality scores were greater for aspects of care that parents were unable to observe, such as nap time, or for aspects that they valued more highly.
These findings—general agreement between researchers and parents on the aspects of care that are important but inconsistency in ratings of care—suggest that parents are not well-informed consumers and do not accurately judge child care quality. This has implications for child care financing because parents are usually the only persons responsible for selecting a child care arrangement. These study findings suggest that it cannot be assumed that parents will purchase high-quality child care simply because they want the best for their children. As is discussed below, high-quality care costs only a little more than mediocre care, so parents cannot use the cost of care as an indicator of its quality. Even parents who are willing to pay more for child care have no assurance that their extra dollars will purchase higher-quality care.