Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

The financing of early education and care in this country is a confusing mix of private and public dollars, with much of it coming from high fees for parents and low pay for early educators – and much of it built as a service working parents, not a birthright for young children. A recent paper from the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance,“Toward Better Policy for Early Care and Education in the United States,” describes the complex web of public funding that includes subsidies for the children of low-income working parents, Head Start and public school pre-kindergarten. It makes recommendations for streamlining funding to build a child-centered system of high-quality early learning.

“Historically, the care and education of children before they enter school has been viewed as a personal (maternal) responsibility, with limited public support largely focused on poor families,” the report states.

“The result is many distinct public funding sources, each with a distinct and significant purpose and population, which together have created chaotic and competing demands for accountability, with differing assurances that children are doing better and families are thriving…. When our economy was growing, these tensions of purpose between child care funding as a workforce support for parents and early learning funding in support of children’s school readiness were challenging but did not halt progress…. The reality, however, is that public funding has never been sufficient to support direct services for more than a very small fraction of the population.”

Even Massachusetts, which streamlined governance by creating the nation’s first consolidated Department of Early Education and Care in 2005, struggles with the disparate public funding sources described in the report, the bulk of which come from the federal government.

“Policy that focuses squarely on the needs of children will not be defined by their parent’s engagement in the workforce or by their age or where they live,” the report states. “We challenge the current, siloed approach to early care and education policy and finance, and encourage a new approach… that establishes systemwide direction for all ECE settings, regardless of funding stream.”

One way to meet this goal, the report notes, is to require programs and providers receiving public funds to participate in the state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). Massachusetts, which launched its QRIS in 2011, is in the process of implementing such a requirement.

The report also recommends that federal, state and local agencies work together to establish common standards and requirements instead of the separate rate structure and reporting mechanisms that currently characterize funding sources. A streamlined, child-centered funding system, the report states, “needs fiscal policy that creates a framework for using funding from multiple sources to support a single child or ECE program. It is not necessary to merge funding streams to achieve this goal; what is needed are clear and consistent policies that harmonize the rules, regulations, policies and procedures used by the entities that administer funds.”

(A nod to Birth to Thrive Online for pointing out the study.)