In order to go to work, provide for their families, meet the needs of Texas businesses, and grow the Texas economy, over one million families in our state walked into a child care provider this year. Sometimes amid tears from the parents or tears from their kid, they dropped off their children in what they hoped would be safe, nurturing, and engaging early learning environments.
Every day, Texas parents had little choice but to trust the child care staff – and to trust those responsible for child care policy and oversight in Texas: the Legislature, the Governor, the Child Care Licensing office in the state’s Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), Child Protective Investigations (CPI) in the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), and the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).
The Austin American-Statesman’s recent 12-part series on its year-long investigation into child care oversight and state policy found, however, that for many Texas families, that trust turned into tragedy – and those tragedies were often preventable. While there are many wonderful child care providers throughout the state, the series documented child injuries, deaths, and sexual assaults in care as well as a lack of state oversight of and support for child care. While finding affordable, high-quality child care is very challenging for Texas families of all backgrounds, the series reminds us that lower- and middle-income families face the greatest challenge and are most likely to have to settle for subpar care.
The Statesman series found that nearly 90 children died in Texas child care between 2007 and 2017, according to state records. More deaths occurred in unlicensed child care than in licensed centers that are required to meet certain minimum health and safety standards. Most deaths were due to unsafe sleep practices caused by inadequate child care training, violation of licensing rules, or lack of supervision. The second highest cause of death was physical abuse. In addition, the Statesman found more than 450 children had suffered sexual abuse at a Texas child care center during the past ten years.
These were the most tragic and visible examples of how inadequate state oversight of our child care system shortchanges children, but in many ways they represent the tip of the iceberg. Amid the rapid brain development of the first few years of life, children’s early experiences – including nurturing relationships, stimulating conversations and activities, development of children’s natural curiosity, healthy eating, and active play – provide the foundation for the rest of their lives. In high-quality centers, parents find that child care providers are often strong partners in ensuring children get these experiences to start off strong. In the low-quality child care in Texas, on the other hand, kids often miss out and end up starting elementary school without the cognitive, behavioral, and social-emotional foundation they need to succeed.
The Statesman series highlighted a state approach to child care that is characterized by three particular deficiencies: lax state standards, lax enforcement of standards, and inadequate support for parents and child care providers.
1) The state has low child care standards regarding caregiver-child ratios, nutritious food and drinks, active play opportunities for children, and much more. Texas has some of the worst standards in the country for ensuring young children get the individualized attention and supervision they need to be safe and to develop in a way that prepares them to succeed in school. Under current Texas standards, a single child care educator can look after nine 18-month-olds or 15 three-year olds, for example. Legislators have filed bills to improve the ratio standards as well as standards for nutrition and active play, and advocates have urged DFPS to improve these standards, but state leaders have failed to move these proposals forward.
State leaders have even resisted efforts to collect data on caregiver-child ratios. The Statesman recounts efforts in 2016 by academic researchers who partnered with the state to collect data on actual caregiver-child ratios during state inspectors’ routine child care visits. Researchers were then going to compare those ratios with injury rates to help state leaders assess whether reducing maximum ratios would promote child safety. After six weeks of data collection, the state pulled out of the study.
2) State efforts to investigate and enforce current licensing standards may need more attention and resources. The Statesman found that, in the last ten years, “child care facilities were cited more than 3,200 times for abuse and neglect of the children they were watching” and numerous child care centers with hundreds of recent licensing violations continued to operate. In addition, the state quietly disbanded a unit designed to proactively search out unlicensed child care and shut them down. Finally, the Statesman reported that “the state does not require regulatory agencies or day care providers to reveal to parents that sexual abuse might have occurred in their day care facilities, even if there has been an arrest.”
3) In the absence of state support for parents and providers, the economics of child care too often put children in substandard, potentially dangerous care and pose huge financial challenges for parents and teachers. State lawmakers have primarily relied on federal funding to support our child care system. With the cost of child care for just one child often exceeding $10,000 per year, and many Texas employers paying Texas workers relatively low or modest salaries, safe and enriching programs are difficult for many families to find and afford.
According to Children at Risk’s latest report, federal recommendations indicate child care should cost no more than seven percent of a family’s income, but in Texas, caring for an infant and toddler can cost 10-50 percent of many working families’ annual earnings.
Absent state resources to strengthen the sector, the economics are difficult for providers as well, with consequences for children and child care staff. A key challenge for recruiting and retaining high quality child care staff is the meager pay for the critically important work of child development. According to Statesman research, the mean child care salary in Texas is $21,570, below the national average. This leads to high turnover, which is disruptive for children and wastes resources spent on training and professional development.
There are key steps state leaders can take to improve the safety and quality of Texas child care. Some practical steps for policymakers include:
Set effective maximum child care group size and child-caregiver ratios and ensure the state collects data on these quality indicators in licensed child care.
Ensure child care centers and homes have the resources and training supports they need to hire and retain high-quality educators.
Reinstate a state unit devoted to cracking down on illegal child care operations, where the largest number of child care abuse and neglect deaths occur, and boost state licensing staff charged with investigations and licensing enforcement in child care.
Include more child care providers in our Texas Rising Star quality child care improvement system and ensure appropriate financial incentives for child care centers that improve their quality.
Go beyond minimum safety concerns and ensure kids in child care maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle by updating the state's child care standards regarding nutrition, physical activity, and screen time.
We stand ready to work with Texas leaders to ensure young children get off on a strong start through safe and effective learning environments. We are hopeful that policy leaders come together to proactively tackle common-sense efforts to improve child care standards and oversight during the 2019 legislative session.