Journal Issue: Financing Child Care Volume 6 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1996
The rationale for the School of the 21st Century flows directly from the data and ideas presented in the earlier articles in this journal issue.
First, as noted by Cohen in her article in this journal issue, the need for good quality child care is hardly new. This need was recognized more than two decades ago when Congress passed the Child Development Act of 1971, which would have created a national network of child care centers, with parent fees calibrated to parent income. This proposed child care system could have been refined and enlarged as needs changed. In 1971, however, public recognition of the child care problem was limited, opposition to any form of out-of-home care for children was enormous, and President Nixon eventually vetoed the bill.4 Further major legislative attempts to address various aspects of the child care problem—including increased demand for facilities and regulations to ensure basic standards to govern child care environments—also failed, until 1990, when $750 million was appropriated in the Child Care and Development Act.5 Although this legislation and other policy responses such as tax credits represent a beginning response to the child care problem, they meet only a fraction of the need,6,7 and they do little to assure good-quality, affordable child care for working middle-class families. (See the articles by Cohen and by Stoney and Greenberg in this journal issue.)
Second, families today are different from the families of decades past. The increased participation of women in the labor force, increased rates of divorce and single-parent families, and increased mobility of families all mean that fewer children are cared for at home by their parents, and fewer parents can count on friends and relatives for assistance with child rearing and care today than in the past.8 (See the article by Hofferth in this journal issue.) Increases in the number of families with young children living in poverty and a decline in the median income of families pose additional hardships for families.9 All these factors can create periods of stress and moments of crisis for families. At such times, social support programs such as home visiting services, family resource centers, parents' groups, and child care services can help families cope with and ward off serious problems.10 Although various support services have been implemented over the years,11 too few such services exist to meet families' needs. Social policies and programs have not kept pace with societal changes and with the realities of family life.12
Third, recent research findings on the poor quality of existing child care suggest that the need for good-quality care is universal in scope. (See the article by Helburn and Howes in this journal issue.) Some affluent families may be able to purchase good-quality child care, but the majority of poor and working middle-class families spend high percentages of their income to buy care that is of poor or mediocre quality. Indeed, families pay a greater share of the cost of child care than any other single payer.
Fourth, child care staff members are the primary contributors to child care quality, but their wages and benefits are very low, with direct negative consequences for the quality of child care, especially with respect to staff turnover. (See the article by Helburn and Howes in this journal issue.)
Finally, as Cohen, Hofferth, and Stoney and Greenberg point out in their articles, there is no coherent child care financing or delivery system. Instead, a patchwork of child care services of variable quality is delivered in a variety of settings, funded at differing levels through a variety of funding streams with varying eligibility requirements, and administered by different agencies. Existing laws, such as the 1990 Child Care and Development Block Grant, allow states discretion in allocating funds, which primarily serves to perpetuate the current nonsystem for child care. (See the article by Stoney and Greenberg in this journal issue.) Additional funds alone cannot address the child care problem; a coherent system is necessary to make sure that quality improvements are implemented and sustained, and that consumers of all income levels have adequate access to services.Guiding Principles
Given the scope of the child care problem and the limitations inherent in current public funding streams such as the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a comprehensive child care system is needed. The School of the 21st Century is such a system. It is guided by several principles:1
- The child care system must provide universal access to high-quality child care. School of the 21st Century child care is supported by parental fees that include sliding-scale provisions to subsidize middle- and low-income families. Additional direct subsidies for low-income families are provided through federal, state, and/or local funding.
- Universal access does not mean that all children must attend child care programs. Rather, parents decide which services, including child care, of the School of the 21st Century they want to use.
- Child care must promote the optimal development of the whole child, including not only his or her cognitive development but physical, social, and emotional development as well. Child care services for three-and four-year-olds in the School of the 21st Century, for example, emphasize play and social interaction.
- Child care must be predicated on a partnership between parents and providers. Much of the success of programs such as Head Start has been attributed to the active participation of parents in the services provided to their children.13,14 Parents are encouraged to participate in planning the School of the 21st Century in their community and to interact with child care providers.
- Child care providers must be supported through training and upgrades in wages and benefits. For example, Schools of the 21st Century have established benefit programs and training programs for child care providers in the community.
- Any proposed child care system must be flexible and able to adjust to families' differing needs for child care and other support services. Schools of the 21st Century conduct community needs assessments to determine which services to offer, and families are able to select the services they want to use.
- A stable, reliable, good-quality child care system must be integrated with the political and economic structure of society to survive. The School of the 21st Century is tied to a recognized and easily accessible societal institution—the public school.