The education achievement gap starts appearing well before children enter kindergarten, several studies have shown. Now, a new report says the solution for providing quality and meaningful infant and early toddler care for families across all socio-economic levels in D.C. is straightforward: A whole lot more funding.
The study from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and D.C. Appleseed — two local public policy non-profits — examined the discrepancy between how much government funding pre-kindergarten centers and families receive and how much it actually costs for each child to receive quality early childhood care. The study found that since D.C. started providing universal free pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds about a decade ago — which pulled the older toddlers out of these private centers and into the public school system — the private facilities have been struggling financially in their efforts to care for the city’s youngest children. Infants and young toddlers require more supervision, driving up costs.
There are about 7,610 total available early childhood care slots for children in the District, according to data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Of the 22,000 children under the age of three in D.C., 42 percent of them are in low-income families.
Achievement gaps between races and economic classes are persistent problems nationwide, and they are particularly pronounced in places like D.C., where the population ranges across the spectrum from very wealthy to very poor. Those who are motivated to put their children into early childhood programs — and can afford them — give their children an advantage, but that also can widen the achievement gap.
“Access to high-quality early learning environments can reduce or even eliminate that gap, which is why District policy makers have invested heavily in quality universal preschool and Pre-Kindergarten,” the report reads. “But children from low-income households can already be cognitively behind by preschool, so the District must also invest in the early education needs of its infants and toddlers.”
Specifically, the “Solid Footing” study looks at early childhood care centers in the city that accept subsidy payments. Families who earn at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for the subsidies and, depending on their income, pay a relatively small co-payment to attend the private care centers. (The federal poverty level in 2015 for a family of 4 was $24,250.)
D.C. received about $79 million in federal and local subsidies for early childhood development in fiscal year 2015. But the child care subsidies only cover less than 70 percent of the median cost per infant and toddler in accredited centers, the study said. The median cost per infant going to an average-ranked child development center in the District is about $54 per day.
The report estimates that the subsidy program should receive an additional $38 million each year.
The centers rely on grants and private fundraising to help them make up the difference. The report found some leaders at these centers use their own personal savings to offset costs. Others are forced to cut corners, choosing not to update their facilities or buying less-expensive or used materials. Of the 36 centers that participated in the study, many said they would like to have field trips but are unable to pay for them.
Judy Berman, deputy director at D.C. Appleseed, said the inadequate funding has the biggest impact on the quality of teachers hired and their retention rates. She argues that because so much cognitive development occurs during infancy, early child care is more than just baby sitting, and skilled labor is critical to a child’s success. Many of the teachers at the city’s private centers don’t have college degrees, and some get paid slightly more than minimum wage. The report notes that nearly every center said it would like to increase their workers’ salaries.
“One center wanted to increase pay in order to compete with centers in Northwest to attract talent, another thought low wages signaled disrespect for people of color in the workforce,” according to the report.
The report recommends that District lawmakers phase in the $38 million subsidy increase — growth of 43 percent — across four years.
“It is possible that if they increased the subsidies, more centers would enroll in the subsidy program,” Berman said. “Families would then have more options, and centers would be able to provide higher quality services.”