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At the root of the national child-care crisis is money. Regulators, children's advocates and centers themselves agree that providing quality child care costs money -- more money that most parents are able to afford.
Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, says problems with child care aren't unique to Missouri. "We don't have the kind of quality that children deserve. You can't blame the child-care providers themselves -- they work long hours with incredibly small salaries. This is an area that just hasn't risen to the top that policy makers see as deserving of the kind of resources you need, which is ironic, since we know a good early start makes a difference in children's ability to enter school ready to succeed. It's not just licensing and quality. It's whether families can afford good care. Child care is not a luxury. The majority of women are working out of economic necessity."
What parents want and what their paychecks will allow are often two different matters, say Franklin, Missouri's bureau chief for child-care regulation.
"Quality costs, and those same parents, whether low- or middle-income, probably can't afford much more," Franklin says. "A lot of our parents are paying as much for child care in a year as I am paying for my child to go to a Missouri (university) for tuition for one year. In the higher-education world, I could, if I wanted, get help to put my kids through college. In child care, someone a little bit above the poverty level can't get any help."
The result is a network of facilities in which the children are in the care of overworked and underpaid employees. Citizens for Missouri's Children notes that the median income for a child-care worker is $13,156 -- and many providers do not offer benefits such as health insurance. The low salaries lead to high levels of turnover. A 1997 study by the Center for the Child Care Workforce found an average turnover rate of 31 percent for child-care teachers and assistants. One-fifth of centers reported losing at least half of their teaching staffs in a single year.
Research is continually demonstrating the importance of quality child care -- and the benchmarks of quality are generally measured by low turnover, low staff-to-child ratios and high levels of teacher training and education.
One four-year study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Maternal and Child Health Bureau, found infants and toddlers in better-quality daycare tested a full 12 points higher on IQ tests than did those in lesser-quality care.
The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health, has been tracking 1,364 children since 1991. Its research, so far, has found that higher quality of care is related to better mother- child relationships, fewer reports of children's problem behaviors, higher cognitive performance, higher language ability and a higher level of school readiness.
Both studies gauged quality in part by the National Health and Safety Performance Standards published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association. Those standards recommend a ratio of three children per caregiver for children under 24 months. For children between 31 and 35 months, they recommend a 5-1 ratio. And the standards suggest that all caregivers have knowledge of early-childhood development -- such as an undergraduate degree in early-childhood education, social work, nursing or another child-related field, or a combination of experience under qualified supervision and college coursework, or one year's experience.
Missouri's standards are far less rigorous. The required ratio for infants and toddlers is 4-1; for 2-year-olds, it is 8-1. Directors of child-care centers must have 120 hours of college coursework, including studies in early-childhood education. For child-care workers, there are no education requirements -- they must be at least 18 and must pass background checks.
Workers, once hired, need undergo only 12 hours of annual training.
Denise Mauzy is project director of Opportunities in Professional Education Network, a Missouri initiative that is developing standards for training and a trainer registry. Currently, someone could theoretically offer a class on coloring with crayons and it would qualify, as long as the person offering it could "print out a certificate saying someone had been in your class for two hours," Mauzy says.
T.E.A.C.H, a project begun in North Carolina, is being pilot-tested in the St. Louis area for child-care providers who serve employees of IBM, Citicorp and AT&T, because those companies are members of a business collaborative funding the program. It will pay for 80 percent of a child-care worker's tuition if he or she pursues an associate's degree, as well as other expenses, and the workers' employers have agreed to reward them with bonuses and salary increases as they complete their coursework. But the pilot project is small -- with funds for only 23 scholarships.
Growth through Education Means Success (GEMS), a pilot project under way in Columbia and Macon and funded by the Missouri Department of Health, is examining the effectiveness of 36 hours of classroom training for newly hired workers. GEMS, however, has unwittingly underscored the turnover problem. Of the 40 workers it began with in January, just 13 remain.