Child Care Key to State's Early Education Strategy

This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

We’re thrilled to see gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis agree that strengthening public school pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds should be a priority, even if they disagree on the best approach. Their views reflect a consensus that investing in early childhood education puts kids on track for success in school and reduces taxpayer expenditures for failed classes, welfare programs and criminal justice.

While we focus on the 230,000 Texas children in public school pre-K, we need to remember that more than twice as many kids younger than 5 are in child care. In surveying child care providers for our recent report, "Caring for the Dallas Community’s Littlest Learners: A Case Study of Child Care Supply, Affordability, and Quality,” we found large disparities in the quality of child care. While the report focused on the DFW region, it provides lessons for the whole state.

We discovered child care centers that maintained small class sizes and low child-caregiver ratios, a well-documented ingredient in ensuring high quality. But we also heard from providers who put as many kids into a single teacher’s classroom as state rules allow.

That’s bad news. Texas has some of the worst standards in the country, allowing a single caregiver to watch over nine 18-month-olds or 11 2-year-olds. The standards are so bad that the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services declared that they could threaten children’s safety.

Kids in these classes are less likely to be prepared for success. Research into child development show that nurturing relationships and engaging activities are especially important for children younger than 4, shaping their critical thinking abilities, vocabulary and social skills.

Too many children don’t have the benefit of these rich experiences. One study found that by age 4, children in high-income families had been exposed to 30 million more words than kids in low-income families. Even those parents who know the importance of engaging their kids in conversation may have little time to do so. Financial pressures and federal welfare reform requirements have pushed more parents into the workforce. As a result, many Texas kids rely heavily on child care to provide enriching experiences to complement the attention they get at home.

In high-quality child care, a toddler may sit with a small group and listen to a book, discuss the characters, finger paint a scene from the story, and then play outside. A toddler in low-quality care, on the other hand, might stare blankly at a TV for hours or sit crying in a room full of kids with an overwhelmed teacher.

Unfortunately, the children who often need high-quality care the most are the most likely to end up in low-quality care. In Dallas County, for instance, the average annual full-time cost for a child younger than 3 in a center was $7,100 in 2012. Many low-income families are priced out of high-quality care. While some qualify for financial assistance, many have difficulty finding providers that accept subsidized care.

Quality child care is a key component to any early childhood education strategy. Our next governor can make sure more children are ready for school and life by reducing child care ratios and increasing subsidy rates, particularly for high-quality providers.

Brauer is the early education policy associate and Bufkin is the early opportunities policy associate at Texans Care for Children.