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One step forward, one step back. So goes system building. On May 16, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced proposed regulatory changes to “better ensure children’s health and safety in child care and promote school readiness.” Almost exactly a month after Jonathan Cohn exposed “The Hell of American Day Care,” joining a growing, and most welcome, number of ECE muckrakers. And ruffling the feathers, one can only imagine, of DHHS chief Kathleen Sebelius, who is nothing if not child- and family-friendly. Here’s her statement, the language carefully crafted to address the uptick of parental anxiety that the latest revelations are sure to have evoked:
Many children already benefit from the excellent care of high-quality child care providers who are meeting or exceeding the proposed requirements. However, too many children remain in settings that do not meet minimum standards of health and safety. These basic rules ensure that providers take necessary basic steps to shield children from an avoidable tragedy.
The proposed regulation would apply only to ECE providers supported by the Child Care and Development Fund, some 500,000, serving 1.6 million low-income children as well as other non-CCDF youngsters–an infelicitous, bureaucratic description if I ever saw one. Health and safety training would now be required, as would comprehensive background checks, on-site monitoring, and compliance with state and local fire, health and building codes. But, as the regulation document notes, the states will be left, of course, to duke it out in their legislatures.
This is all well and good. As the official announcement noted, these are “long overdue reforms.” But frankly, we’re talking baseline here, the most minimal level of standards, which vary tremendously, by the way, across the states. We haven’t even touched other critical components of quality: professional preparation and ongoing training, caregiver/teacher effectiveness, and the integration of early learning standards into practice. What’s that I heard about school readiness?
For a sobering review of family child care homes, where millions of little ones spend their days, you need look no farther than Child Care Aware’s Leaving Children to Chance, a 2012 ranking of state standards and oversight of family child care homes. Sadly, sixteen states scored “zero” out of a maximum number of 150 points. And of the states that registered on the scale, the average score was an anemic 69, equivalent to 46 percent, a failing grade in anyone’s book. New York has the dubious distinction of claiming the greatest number of children—52,358—in publicly funded licensed care in which fingerprint checks are not cross-checked with federal records.
Child Care Aware’s report title harks back to Not by Chance, a product of the Quality 2000 Initiative, released way back in 1997. Written by Sharon Lynn Kagan and Nancy Cohen, this seminal work drew attention to children at the mercy of a chaotic early childhood system.
I don’t know about you, but I could do without the irony. Avoidable tragedy, indeed.
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“April is the cruellest month.” (T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land)
On the 18th, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took to the bully pulpit of Washington’s hometown newspaper to proclaim ECE “the sure path to the middle class.” He concluded his sermon with the following words:
Can we replicate what works? We can, and we must. If the United States is to remain a global economic leader, high-quality preschool must become the norm. The moral case is compelling, too. As President Obama has said, every child should have the opportunity, through hard work, to join the middle class. Children shouldn’t be denied equal educational opportunity at the starting line.
Duncan’s also kept ECE in his Twitter feed, giving a nod, on the 22nd, to Minnesota, home of economist and staunch early education advocate, Art Rolnick, whose photograph graced an editorial in the Star Tribune applauding the legislature’s proposals to pull “Minnesota’s littlest learners” up from the bottom of the funding heap. Governor Mark Dayton’s executive budget includes $85 million for early education for 3- to 6-year-olds, to be split between all-day kindergarten and scholarships for low-income children to high-quality preschools. House and Senate plans are even more generous, investment-wise. The Senate is calling for $50 million in preschool scholarships and $105 million for all-day kindergarten; the House, $44 million on preschool and $130 million on expansion of kindergarten. All three proposals would open the doors to 10,000 additional children.
And then there’s Homeroom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education, which hosted a Head Start alumnus, on the same day that Duncan tweeted his shout-out to Minnesota. Marciano Gutierrez, a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, from Alta Vista High School in Mountain View, California, is the son of a father who dropped out of the eighth grade in Oaxaca, Mexico, and of a mother who reads at the third-grade level. “ I did not have the best odds at achieving academic success,” he duly notes, finding kinship with kids from the south side of Chicago:
What happened that helped these kids academically achieve and change the trajectory of their lives? Wanting to hear more about their past, but not wanting to invade their privacy, I asked, “How many of you will be among the first in your family to go to college?” Five students raised their hands. I followed up, “How many of you went to preschool or Head Start?” All five hands remained in the air.
“Okay,” I said to my husband, “I can rest now.”
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? Yes, we’ve pushed preschool all the way up to the top of that crowded federal policy agenda. We’ve got support among high-level decision makers, including enlightened governors from both sides of the aisle. Arne Duncan is marketing as fast as he can. On the 29th, he appeared at the National Press Club with Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, for the release of the 2012 State Preschool Yearbook. Also on deck were U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius; AFT President Randi Weingarten; Celia Ayala, CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool; and Jack Brennan, a former Chair of Vanguard (as in “Invest for your future”).
But the news was sobering. Preschool in America is in a state of emergency, Barnett declared, “devastated by the Great Recession and the failure of our leaders to prioritize early educational opportunity.” Apparently, state preK funding fell a whopping half a billion from 2011 to 2012, with spending per child at its lowest level since NIERR began surveying states in 2002. Ouch.
State preschool, need I tell you, is merely the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t even talked about sequestration, or the 2014 budget. More pain is on the way, say Jason Delisle and Clare McCann, of the New America Foundation, whose education budget recap of 2013 and early analysis of 2014 is a fitting, if disturbing, culmination to April. Their brief takes us deep into the weeds, looking at federal education writ large and the mysterious machinations of the House and the Senate. The gist: Spending caps laid out by the Budget Control Act of 2011 will force federal appropriation spending downward, with all players—including ECE—vying for a smaller piece of the pie.
No rest for the weary. We’re on board with Sisyphus, moving that boulder up the hill.
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In the wake of our Senate’s “shameful day”—putting the kibosh, for the moment, on gun control—I managed to get out of bed, thanks to Jonathan and Noah. As we grapple with our maddening, intractable conflicts about government intervention in the homes, pockets, and bedrooms of e pluribus unum, two millennial guys are zooming in on [... click post title to read more ...]