By Megan Carolan
“A child’s path to either success or hardship is well-established within the first 2,000 days of life…During this narrow window of opportunity, a child’s day-to-day experiences and surroundings— whether positive or negative—have a direct, powerful effect on the structural and functional development of the brain, including intelligence and personality.” So begins a new report from the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) which focuses on the experience of child care providers in the Philadelphia area to shape an early childhood system that better serves children, families, and providers.
For over a decade, NFF worked with providers in five counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania, with support from the William Penn Foundation, to understand the barriers and successes of regional child care providers. In a field driven by data and outcomes measurements, this report supplements figures with qualitative reflections essential to understand the state of early care and education in Pennsylvania and throughout the country. Their key findings paints a picture of a system in need of particular support to best serve families:
- ECE programs operate very close to the edge with little margin for error
- For many ECE operators, the decision to provide high-quality programs creates more financial and programmatic demands, without the promise of commensurate increases in financial
- There is little understanding of what the “full costs” are for providing high-quality care.
- Existing ECE revenue sources do not allow high-quality programs (particularly those serving low-income children) to cover the relatively high fixed costs of care
- Available child care subsidies in Pennsylvania fall far short of covering the full cost of care. This gap increases as quality of care goes up.
- Combining different types of funding to serve low-income children results in overly complex financial management
- Strict eligibility rules for child care subsidy result in disruptions in the continuity of care for low-income children, as well as the continuity of revenue for the providers who serve
- Further research is needed to understand how parents of low-income children select a child care provider.
The report goes beyond these highlights to provide recommendations for providers, funders, and policymakers. It is clear that communication among these groups, and an understanding of the challenges faced by providers, is key to developing a working system.
The report comes at a time of building momentum for early childhood in the area. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has made early childhood education a key focusing of his administration, releasing A Running Start Philadelphia, a “citywide early learning plan [which] lays the foundation for providing our children with the best possible beginnings in life, while seeking to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty.” The plan details a number of goals and strategies focused on ensuring currently available learning services in both centers and homes are of high quality as well as expanding opportunities to the majority of Philadelphia’s young children. Philadelphia residents will vote in November on the creation of a taskforce to study preschool funding and implementation options. The University of Pennsylvania recently released a toolkit for funders focused on early childhood. It offers a “crash course” on the importance of early childhood as well as next steps for investing meaningfully in making change. While this work is particular to the Keystone state, there is no doubt the lessons from it apply to the nation as a whole and can provide a cornerstone on which to build our work.