US Childcare System Makes 'Having It All' All the More Difficult

The cover article in this month's The Atlantic has reignited the ever-simmering debate regarding how to best balance work and family life. While the question of whether anyone can "have it all" remains open for discussion, it is clear that our haphazard childcare system, with its inconsistent monitoring and paucity of reliable information on the quality of individual programs, makes striking this balance all the more difficult for parents with young children.

Estimates suggest that nearly two-thirds of children under five years old are regularly cared for by someone other than a parent, with most of these young children spending more than thirty hours each week in these settings. Great early care and education has been shown to help children succeed later in school and develop into healthier more productive adults. But these benefits are contingent on sufficient quality of these programs, and our best evidence suggests that many childcare programs in the United States, be they public, for-profit, or not-for-profit, fail to meet that bar.

Ask any parent with a young child and they will tell you, finding childcare is not easy. With high prices and limited availability, many parents feel fortunate to find any care that aligns with their work schedules and doesn't require them to take out a second mortgage. Our market-based system of early care and education empowers individuals to make their own choices but information about the quality of their options is often scarce. Only a small fraction of programs that care for young children even attempt accreditation from an independent professional association and in many parts of the country, state and local governments provide families with little or no additional data about the safety and quality of childcare programs.

This makes it difficult for even the most conscientious parent to distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly. Many childcare facilities operate under very little oversight -- save for issues of basic safety -- which makes accessing even the most simple information a treasure hunt for parents. Even when parents are able to obtain safety and programming information, the day-to-day interactions between children, teachers, and content (the critical element of childcare quality) remain largely hidden from view. Parents are left to rely on "word of mouth" information from friends and social networks to learn about the quality of a given program, as their young children, the direct consumers of these services, often struggle to articulate useful details of their daily experiences.

Many state and local governments are working to bridge this information gap by inviting childcare programs to report on the multiple features of childcare quality in order to empower parents to make better choices. State and locally administered quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) score childcare programs on a variety of difficult-to-observe indicators of quality. These systems allow parents to make "apples to apples" comparisons of program quality and, in some cases, offer providers support for improving their services and financial incentives to meet quality benchmarks.

Despite the creation of these new data systems, many childcare programs are choosing not to participate. A recent comprehensive review of QRIS across the country found that nearly half of existing systems provided ratings on 30 percent or fewer of the programs in their area. When combined with the many programs that receive little or no public monitoring, this means that the vast majority of parents remain largely in the dark about the quality of care provided to their children.

With support from the Obama administration's Early Learning Challenge Grants (part of the Race to the Top initiative), many states are currently developing systems to improve parents' access to information about childcare programs. States must take advantage of this unique opportunity and find ways to include a larger proportion of childcare providers under the QRIS umbrella. They can do this by collaborating with providers of all types, large and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, in the development of rating systems and offering providers meaningful incentives to participate. For their part, childcare providers should embrace the opportunity to demonstrate the quality of their programs and fully participate in measuring and reporting their effectiveness.

State and federal incentives, while important, will only go so far in helping parents get the information they need to make informed decisions about their children's care. If parents really want clear information on program quality, they need to ask for it. For those parents fortunate enough to live in an area where programs can participate in QRIS, they should ask to see the program's report card. If the program has opted not to participate, parents should ask to know the reason why, or simply take their business elsewhere

Reliable, consistent, and understandable information about the quality of all childcare programs, may not on its own make it possible for parents to "have it all" but it does represent a key first step toward building a system of childcare that works for children, parents and providers.

Todd Grindal is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the recent American Enterprise Institute study, "Unequal access: Hidden barriers to achieving both quality and profit in early care and education."