The Childcare Worker Crisis: Is Raising Ratios the Answer?
Published Date: 08/15/19
As I browse Facebook today taking a much-needed break from helping panicked parents find you, I was struck by a post in a preschool director’s networking group.
Often in this group the subject of staffing comes up - specifically, how hard it is to find quality teachers. And in one particular post today, a director complained about the demands of applicants. They want $15 per hour, health insurance, sick leave, and paid vacation.
This particular director is in Wisconsin, a state ranked 22nd in cost of living, where the minimum wage is a mere $7.25 per hour.
What does it say about the Early Childhood Education industry - an industry dedicated to improving the lives of children from birth to five years old - that one quarter of America’s childcare workers live in poverty and more than one half need government assistance of some kind? What does it say when a director thinks it's unreasonable for a human being to ask for a living wage, health care, the ability to call out sick while still being able to pay bills, and few weeks vacation?
It says we’re in crisis. And there’s potential for it to get worse.
The District of Columbia is now requiring childcare workers to obtain college degrees in an effort to improve the quality of care that children receive. Who among us doesn’t support quality care for children? But, Washington DC also already has the highest cost of infant care in the nation. A better educated workforce means they can command better pay. Where does that additional pay come from? As of now, it can come from two sources: raising tuition rates, placing an even greater burden on families who struggle to afford quality care, or out of childcare center profits.
Other states are sure to follow DC’s lead as quality childcare is taking the stage. When we look to the 2020 election, many democratic candidates have universal childcare at the forefront of their platform, with some pushing for higher pay for preschool teachers.
Illinois is leading the charge with a bill introduced to pay early childhood educators with college degrees the same as kindergarten teachers - a starting salary of $40,000, which is a large increase over the $25,000 they average now. The proposal, however, does not address where that additional money comes from.
Senator Warren’s childcare plan requires the same - that providers be paid on par with public school teachers. While it doesn’t explicitly state it, we presume that increase in pay will come from the subsidies she’s proposed paying private providers to offset the cost of childcare for families, ensuring families pay no more than 7% of their income. Her plan imposes a tax on America’s ultra-wealthy to fund it.
When we look at proposals to expand universal pre-k, there’s concern that infant programs will be cut. With more children enrolled in public programs, less will be enrolled in private. That squeezes providers who already often take a loss or break even on infant care.
Universal childcare is likely in our country’s future in some form, although we’re years, if not decades, away from it.
The current administration’s solution to the staffing crisis is to reduce staff size regulations and reallocate the funds to attract more highly-skilled workers. That component of an otherwise dismal plan is not without evidentiary support.
A study published in 2015 by Devon Gorry and Diana Weinert Thomas found that “regulation intended to improve quality often focuses on easily observable measures of the care environment that do not necessarily affect the quality of care but do increase the cost.”
Childcare regulations can also be highly regressive, disproportionately affecting low income families.
A more comprehensive paper titled The Impact of Regulations on the Supply and Quality of Care in Child Care Markets by Joseph Hotz and Mo Xiao published in The National Journal of Economic Research supports this.
“Using a panel dataset across three census periods and with extensive individual child-care center data, state data on day home care, and a host of control variables, they find tightening the staff–child ratio by one child reduces the number of child-care centers in the average market by 9.2–10.8% without increasing employment levels at other centers. This reduction in supply occurs wholly in relatively low-income areas and leads to lots of substitution to home day care. Increased stringency in the regulation actually increases childcare centers in high-income areas, probably because of the “quality assurance” effect, meaning the overall effect is highly regressive,” writes Ryan Bourne for The Cato Institute. With full disclosure, The Cato Institute is a libertarian organization initially founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974. They did not, however, fund or publish the study, only reported on it.
Another paper, Child-Staff Ratios in Early Childhood Education and Care Settings and Child Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis from 2017 provided a meta-analysis of 29 other studies and it showed, “few, if any, relationships between child-staff ratios in preschool ECEC programs and children’s developmental outcomes.”
On the flip side, there’s some research supporting lower ratios, though more needs to be done. One small 2006 study from the Netherlands called Effects of Child-Caregiver Ratio on the Interactions between Caregivers and Children in Child-Care Centers: An Experimental Study looked at 217 caregivers ages 18-56 from 64 childcare centers. The study found, “significant and meaningful effects” as far as interactive behaviors for the caregiver and the children’s well-being and cooperation. Quality childcare was defined as has having four structural characteristics: ratio, caregiver education, group size, and caregiver salary, however this study only examined ratio.
Research on Ratios, Group Size and Staff Qualifications and Training in Early Years and Childcare Settings published by the Thomas Coram Research Unit Institute of Education, University of London, says, “Research supports the view that staff:child ratios influence the quality of care provided for pre-school and school aged children. When staff work with fewer children, they are more able to provide sensitive, responsive care. However, the influence of staff:child ratios cannot be considered independently of other factors including staff education and training, staff salaries and group size. Because of these complex interactions, it is impossible to draw precise conclusions from the research concerning optimum staff:child ratios.”
For the record, I'm not advocating for raising childcare ratios as I don’t really believe that raising ratios is in the best interest of individual children. However, when we look at the regressive impact on low income areas it brings to light the many challenges of providing quality care to these families and to those in childcare deserts. We need solutions and we need them fast.
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