Child care and preschool are about to take center stage in Arizona, engaging an emotionally charged debate that has a bitter history and a potentially explosive future.
The volatile issue pits conservatives and child care operators, who generally oppose tougher regulation, against children’s groups and state policy wonks, who acknowledge that raising the quality of child care could price it out of reach for most families.
“It’s sad when your day care bill is more than your mortgage payment,” said Theresa Wilson, a Gilbert mother of two who has gone into debt to afford $14,000 a year for child care.
Today, the Tribune continues its yearlong monthly series on early-childhood development, examining the politics and money behind the care of the East Valley’s youngest residents.
From President Bush to pediatricians, early-childhood education has become part of the national conversation.
Separate studies have shown that the care a child receives in the first years sets the stage for later learning, and that some child care does more harm than good. So dozens of states have invested millions on ambitious preschool and child care efforts, hoping that it will pay off in higher graduation rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, fewer juvenile delinquents and more productive, taxpaying residents.
With the highest dropout rate in the country, one in five children living in poverty and a growing number of mothers in the work force, Arizona is taking three significant steps into the fray:
- Gov. Jane Hull is expected to issue an executive order next month to create the state Board on School Readiness.
- A corporate-led task force will call for voluntary publicly financed preschool, a rating system for private facilities and a state early-education policy.
- State rules governing child care facilities are undergoing a top-to-
bottom review, an exercise that created battles in the mid-1980s when many of the current regulations were approved.
- Most legislators, particularly in the East Valley, are loath to tighten regulations on child care providers or invest much in preschool programs. They typically share the view that a child’s early care and education is the responsibility of families, not government.
“I think the problems should be addressed by educating the young parents, not creating a program at the school or a program at the Head Start center,” said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa. “Because it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide this for their children.”
Children’s groups counter that some parents can’t or won’t provide the nurturing and attention their kids need to thrive. And because some children spend 10 to 12 hours a day in child care, that may be the place to provide what’s missing at home. But advocates say most child care operators are more interested in the bottom line than in providing quality care.
“The tactic they have chosen is to oppose everything. As a result, Arizona is in the Stone Age,” said Dana Naimark, deputy director of the Children’s Action Alliance and a member of the Tribune’s Born to Learn advisory panel.
It’s unfair to expect business operators to pick up the slack for parents, particularly when child care centers are struggling with 100 percent yearly staff turnover and are just getting by themselves, said Joy Bauer, executive director of the Arizona Child Care Association, which represents for-profit child care centers.
“It really hacks me off when people sit out there and judge,” said Bauer, also a Tribune advisory panel member. “There are centers out there who want to be better, but it’s very difficult for them.”
Although it’s tough to compare because state policies vary so widely, Arizona generally spends less and requires less of its child care facilities than most other states.
Child-to-staff ratios are among the highest, the training and education required of workers is among the least, each Arizona child care inspector is responsible for nearly 100 facilities - twice the national average - and about half of Arizona’s 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled in preschool or kindergarten compared with the national average of two out of three.
State budget cuts have created a severe backlog in child care inspection. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s 2,750 child care facilities and group homes are overdue for reviews, and inspectors are so backed up that they’ve been told to ignore low-level complaints.
The governor’s school readiness board, backed by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera, would recommend a multiyear plan to coordinate and improve early care and education programs, and ultimately figure out a way to pay for it.
But all sides agree it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to toughen regulations and hire more teachers, increase their salaries and train them well, raising rates beyond the reach of most parents.
“There’s not a preschool fairy. It’s going to cost money,” said Hull aide Jodi Beckley. “But it’s not a statement about everybody needs to go to a state-run preschool. Nobody wants that.”
At the same time Hull announces the board, the Arizona School Readiness Task Force, directed by the Children’s Action Alliance, will release a list of
recommendations, including public preschool.
“With the highest dropout rate in the nation and less than half of our fourth-graders reading above basic levels, we must change our perspective of preschool development,” concludes the task force, led by APS Chairman Bill Post. “Educational success depends, in large part, on what happens to children before they ever start kindergarten.”
Child care providers view public preschool as a death knell. No matter how voluntary, it could place more emphasis on already-thriving public school programs and take 4-year-olds - the most lucrative child care age group - away from private centers.
“It just really would hurt us, only because it would be unfair if we didn’t have access to the same dollars that the school system gets,” said James Emch, who owns four Valley Child Care centers in Chandler and Phoenix.
Providers also fear that a rating system, similar to restaurant or hotel rating systems, would penalize child care centers without helping them to improve and do nothing to make good child care more affordable for parents.
The income limit for Arizona’s program to help low-income parents pay for child care tops out at just under $30,000 for a family of four, while in most other states parents can earn more and still qualify.
For people such as Tori Kace of Chandler, it makes more sense to work fewer hours and turn down higher-paying jobs than lose the subsidy for her two daughters. It means the difference between paying $90 a month or $800 a month.
“It holds you back,” she said of the subsidy program. “If I go up (in hourly pay) more than a dollar, I lose everything.”
Funding for child care subsidies has more than tripled since welfare reform in 1996 tossed thousands of Arizona mothers into the work force. Federal child care subsidies for about 40,000 Arizona kids will total $125.5 million in fiscal year 2002-03.
State funding totals $35.4 million among the three agencies that administer child care subsidies, at-risk preschool, family literacy and child care regulation.
That compares with $773 million for the state’s three universities, about 12 percent of the General Fund budget, and nearly $2.5 billion for kindergarten through 12th grade education, or 40 percent of the budget. Both universities and kindergarten through 12th grade schools are governed by state boards.
“We have wonderful (child care) facilities in Arizona, but we also have warehouses that call themselves day cares that are horrid,” said Rep. Deb Gullett, R-Phoenix. Gullett’s bill to establish the school readiness board struggled to get a hearing in the House Education Committee, then was killed by a coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats angry over unrelated budget cuts.
“The science, every lick of it, says this is the most important time in a kid’s life,” Gullett said. “I just think it would mean so much for the children in our state if we could give them a 10th of the attention that we give universities.”
A growing body of research shows that the affection and attention children receive in their first years of life help their brains make important connections to grow strong and smart.
High-quality infant, toddler and preschool programs have been shown to increase test scores, reduce dropout rates and make at-risk students less likely to become teen parents or get arrested.
In the past, however, parents and their child care centers teamed up to oppose stiffer regulations aimed at improving quality, fearing that it would increase costs and put centers out of business.
“We got beaten down by the opposition,” recalled Boyd Dover, who shepherded the regulations in the mid-1980s as an assistant director with the state Department of Health Services. “I recall that it was pretty bitter.”
Now, state health officials are in the midst of another comprehensive review of child care regulations, a lengthy process that will include public hearings and could result in tougher staffing requirements.
Several East Valley preschool directors say that until parents and legislators consider preschool on par with kindergarten through 12th grade education, it won’t get the attention or the funding it deserves.
“They look at it as glorified babysitting,” said Pam Mayes, director of the nationally accredited Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Preschool in Gilbert. “They don’t put great value on it.”
House Education Committee Chairwoman Linda Gray, R-Glendale, said children should be home with a parent before kindergarten. Single mothers who must work should be required to donate time to their child care center in exchange for subsidized care, she said.
“Quite a number of us feel that it’s an individual responsibility and not the state’s responsibility,” Gray said. “When I was growing up, I did not go to kindergarten. I was never behind in school. So I don’t see it as an absolute necessity.”
Wilson agrees that it’s her job to provide quality care for her two daughters. She just doesn’t understand why her family should have to go into debt to pay for it.
“In the long run it’s going to pay off for my kids,” Wilson said. “But right now it’s killing us.”