Jewel Foster was a single mother in Chicago’s South Side. She’d been scraping by without working for several years, but when her sixth child arrived and her boyfriend left her high and dry, she knew she’d need to make some extra money. She lined up a promising job—working as a cashier at Chicago’s high-end Marshall Fields department store—and what’s more managed to find a precious daycare spot for her baby at a soon-to-open center run by a local non-profit. She also enrolled in a course to get her high school equivalency diploma. But when Foster learned that the Center had to delay opening indefinitely, things quickly fell apart. She tried to line up another daycare center but had no luck—in part because there are only 900 subsidized daycare slots in all of Chicago. A social worker offered state-funded vouchers to pay for “informal” care—meaning too many loosely supervised kids crammed into a too small neighborhood apartment . “I didn’t want that for my child,” says Foster. She quit her job to care for her baby during the day and took a dead-end job packaging boxes at a shipping company at night, when a neighbor could look in on the kids. She also dropped her course.

In New York a happier story was unfolding. At the end of the first day of a federally funded “Head Start” pre-school program in Manhattan’s P.S. 5, the teachers discussed a 3-year-old named Brenda Uraga. She was so outgoing, thoughtful, inquisitive—so promising—they couldn’t help but pick her out of the crowd. Candida Uraga, Brenda’s mother, smiled as she recalled that only a year ago Brenda had started out at a federally-funded “Early Head Start” program as a sheepish, disinterested toddler who didn’t speak to anyone. Mrs. Uraga said that since then Early Head Start had “transformed” her relationship with Brenda and her other children. Following a year of working with the program’s family workers, she has a more active role in the children’s education, and says: “Now when my daughter wants to read a book, I take the time to read with her. I used to believe it made no difference.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of the American educational system: Despite all of our resources and all of the know-how we have about giving kids a leg up in life, we wind up helping only a handful of the children who need it. Perhaps we confuse ourselves with the bewildering range of labels that we use when we talk about the services that we provide or should be providing for the young: Head Start, Early Head Start, childcare, daycare, early childhood education, and so on. So let’s be clear: What we need to emphasize, and what all of these programs need to focus on, is educational enrichment—an experience that blends seamlessly with the American educational process and will set the child up for a productive career in the public schools.

With 75 percent of American families now using daycare for their preschool-aged kids, there’s certainly a critical mass of consumers for this sort of “quality” care. Yet studies have shown that only 25 percent of American daycare centers offer quality services—and those are the 25 percent most expensive. For the well-to-do, America offers state-of-the-art pre-school “campuses” like Denver’s Creme de la Creme, which boasts 32-foot vaulted ceilings, a line of faux Victorian shopfronts, a mini-television station, and all the other bells and whistles you’d expect for $14,000 per year. But even a family making $60,000 a year would have to stretch awfully hard to pay that kind of tuition. For kids from impoverished families—precisely the kids who need educationally-enriching daycare the most—it’s simply not an option. For them, America’s ad hoc and underfunded childcare system is a highstakes crap shoot. The lucky ones, like Brenda Uraga, hit big. But the rest are all too likely to get to kindergarten unprepared and unready to learn. These are the kids who will soon be tagged for dead-end special ed classes, waste their few years at school, and find themselves sunk right back into the poverty cycle when they graduate. Why can’t we give them a ladder out?

Let’s talk about that ladder for a moment. American meritocrats like to think of themselves as believing in equality of opportunity. But how can we kid ourselves that Americans have anything approaching equality of opportunity when we live in a country where children born into poverty have only the slimmest chances of reaching kindergarten ready to learn? If we can’t address that problem, then isn’t the meritocracy effectively hoarding the goods the education system has to offer for its own families? Consider the fact that in California, childcare subsidies can only be spent on daycare centers that fall at or below the 75th cost percentile—even though studies have demonstrated that you’re only likely to get quality care above that percentile. That kind of policy signals only one message: We’ve climbed the ladder. Now let’s pull it up before the next guy gets on.

If you think that’s overstating the case, think about the impact that economic circumstances have on an American child’s educational prospects. “Consider how typical middle-class families raise children” wrote education columnist Richard Rothstein in The New York Times last year. “Infants’ first toys are touch and feel’ books. Toddlers soon read’ stories from memory. Magnetic letters decorate refrigerator doors. Sitting on parents’ laps, children help compose’ on computers before they can talk.” Whether or not they happen to be enrolled at Creme de la Creme, these children are obviously being taught to appreciate what the education system has to offer.

Now, consider their counterparts in the housing project across the town. A recent study commissioned by the Children’s Defense Fund showed that three-year-olds who grew up in welfare households knew fewer than half as many words as three year olds from professional families. By the time the kids were in first grade, it was only one quarter as many. Why? The CDF points out that low income kids are likely to come from homes with fewer than 10 children’s books. They also get substantially less one-on-one reading than high income children. And Andy Seltzer, who administers the Head Start program where Brenda Uraga is enrolled, adds that: “In the community they come from there’s very little language interaction between parents and children. Parents don’t talk with their children. They just don’t.”

Could quality childcare close the gap between the middle class kid with magnets on the fridge and the welfare child whose vocabulary is falling behind by age 3? The evidence suggests that it could—or at least narrow it substantially. According to a mammoth 1997 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, quality childcare has an enormous impact in preparing children to enter the school system as stable and inquisitive students. In fact, the study went as far as to conclude that quality childcare can compensate for poor mothering in the early years (perhaps in part because quality childcare programs often have outreach programs that teach parenting skills).

Other studies indicate that the benefits of quality childcare follow a child right up to adulthood. A famous North Carolina study called the Abecedarian Project tracked two groups of low-income children—one that received quality daycare and one that did not—from preschool through age 21. It found that the quality-care kids were half as likely to end up in special ed, and twice as likely to attend four year college. And a recent federal demonstration program called “Follow Through” has shown that Head Start graduates who continue to receive support through third grade actually score on par with national averages on reading and math tests—discrediting some earlier studies claiming that Head Start benefits wear off by grade 3.

Knowing all this, what exactly is America doing to give its children what they need for a fair start in life? Not much. You don’t have to be an organizational genius to figure out that if you want to guarantee enriching childcare to all American children, then you can’t do it on an ad hoc basis. But “ad hoc” is about the nicest term that you can assign American subsidized care. There is no central planning. Money flows downhill from the federal government to the states to the cities, pausing at each stop to molder in treasury accounts while the relevant legislature, or agency, or council scratches its head about how to spend it. And when they finally figure out how to do that, it’s too often on a second or third-best alternative—licensing neighborhood homes to provide a minimal level of care, or sending out vouchers for “informal” care that may keep the kids alive but can’t be counted on to provide much in the way of educational content.

First, let’s consider how the system is supposed to work, if only in theory. The federal government’s signature programs are Head Start (for ages 3 to 5) and Early Head Start (for ages 0 to 3). Both grew out of a Great Society initiative and both are supposed to provide subsidized preschool for all kids in families below the poverty line, which is $16,700 a year for a family of four. They do this by funding community centers that in turn provide services to eligible children.

But even in theory Head Start and Early Head Start can’t meet all of the nation’s childcare needs. Many Head Start programs are part time and closed during the summers (although Early Head Start runs all-day year-round). And they don’t offer any assistance to the four-person family that has an income of $17,000 or even $35,000—which may be technically over the poverty line but will find that cold comfort when two $10,000 pre-school bills arrive in the mail. So to supplement the poverty level programs, the federal government provides the states an aggregate of $3.5 billion in matching funds under its Child Care Development Block Grant program. If fully used, the grants would cover about half of the kids whom the Department of Health and Human Services considers eligible for subsidized care based on family income. State and local governments are expected to pick up the shortfall out of their own budgets.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. Now, back to reality: In the first place, neither Head Start nor Early Head Start has ever been fully funded. The programs currently serve only 861,000 out of roughly 4.6 million eligible children. And despite widely noted improvements in the program’s administration over the past few years, they still have some significant problems. One is that there is no standard national curriculum for either. Another is that program facilities only get inspected once every three years. In practice, this means that some facilities—like Brenda Uraga’s—turn out to be winners, but that others can turn out to be real clunkers, with poor teaching and little federal oversight.

That said, Head Start is actually the bright spot in the system. The much bigger concern is what to do about the 4 million poverty level kids who can’t get in the door of Head Start for lack of funding and the 5 million additional children whose families are over the poverty line but still eligible for subsidized care under HHS guidelines. The only way these kids can get subsidized care is through community programs funded by block grants, and state and local money. And this is where American childcare utterly breaks down.

One major problem is that the federal block grant program gives the states too much freedom. All a state has to do to participate is match a portion of the grant and then spend the proceeds on eligible kids. But once the money is spent, states are left to their own discretion about whether to dig in their own pockets for additional financing in order to get up to a particular level of coverage. As a result, states vary greatly in the level of coverage they provide. For example, Rhode Island—a generous state—guarantees subsidized care for all four-person families with income up to roughly $40,000 per year. By contrast, stingy Idaho cuts off benefits at $18,000 per year. And with regard to the quality of the care that federal money pays for, the states get to make the rules up themselves. In Massachusetts, childcare teachers have to be college graduates with special training in early childhood development. In Louisiana, they just have to be 18 and in good legal standing. In Maryland, you can’t have more than six three-year-olds for each adult caregiver. In Texas, you can have up to 15 kids for each adult.

Another major problem is lack of coordination. As a result of this lack, states and communities that get their hands on childcare money often have no idea of how to spend it. In October 1999, for example, The New York Times reported that New York state had allocated $800 million for childcare—double the amount in its 1998 budget—and yet had no detailed plan for putting it to work for the low and moderate-income families it was supposed to help. This had nothing to do with a lack of need: The paper reported that a full 82 percent of families eligible for government subsidized childcare were not getting it. The money had simply landed in an administrative dead zone.

In the absence of a plan, what does a state do? Well, it can let the communities battle over who gets what. But this will often result in the better networked communities getting more, even if they don’t need it. And of course there’s no guaranteeing that the local officials who get the money will know how to spend it either. In October 1999, the Times ran a story that described how 37,000 low-income children had to go without any form of subsidized care in part because New York City could not figure out what to do with its $242 million state allocation. So while the children and their parents made do with whatever arrangements they could string together, the city puzzled over whether it should build new facilities, license neighborhood families to open daycare centers in their homes, or put out more vouchers to pay for “informal”—i.e., completely unregulated—care.

And this brings us to the most depressing part of the story. When all of the head-scratching and wheel-spinning is over, the cities too often fail to do the right thing and put their money into preschool programs like the ones that Brenda Uraga attended—programs that enrich, that make a difference, that give the kid a fighting chance of entering grade school with a will and a capacity to learn. Instead, they are prone to bet their money on doors two and three—family care and babysitting vouchers. In New York, for example, the Human Resources Administration (which administers childcare for welfare families) spent three quarters of its 1999 childcare budget on vouchers. And whereas the city used to make new facility construction the focus of its daycare investment strategy, the Times reported that the new “growth area” is in recruiting local families to hang out a shingle and start taking in kids.

That’s a terrible result but you can understand how they got there. Even if the city wanted to open sparkling new community centers, where would they find the staff? It turns out that there’s a national shortage of childcare workers. This relates to the fact that wages for center-based workers averaged out at $7.03 per hour in 1997 (the last time those data were crunched)—as compared, for example, to $8.08 per hour for a school cafeteria worker in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Add to that a tight labor market—national unemployment is hovering around a 30-year low—and it’s hardly surprising that 1,000 Colorado providers went looking for greener pastures last year, or that Los Angeles recently projected a staff-driven shortfall of 150,000 daycare slots. You can also understand why the average tenure for an American childcare worker is less than three years—not exactly ideal if the goal is to develop a cadre of seasoned professionals in the field. The top-tier centers are somewhat isolated from this phenomenon because they can pluck promising graduates out of education masters programs.

But the worker shortage is only part of the picture. There’s also a natural but unfortunate tendency for cities to see the childcare crisis as an opportunity to put unemployed residents to work as babysitters. Unfortunately, the idea’s a proven loser as far as the kids are concerned. When Head Start was founded in the 60s, its architects thought they could use the program to fund neighborhood care, stimulate job growth, and foster a sense of community. But they eventually had to abandon the approach when it turned out that the neighborhood women (and it was mostly women who filled the daycare slots) just couldn’t be counted on to do the educational job. Sure, there was a certain advantage in the fact that these women shared the kids’ backgrounds and understood where they were coming from. But that was the downside too. The idea behind the program was to give the kids a leg up and out, a chance to break free from the cycle in which they and their parents had been trapped. But the neighborhood women were stuck in that cycle; they were part of it. And while there was always a chance that the program would light upon a caring person who through some miracle of ability and determination would also turn out to be the next Anne Sullivan, the odds were astronomically stacked against it. Faced with these facts, Head Start eventually abandoned the community-hiring approach.

You’d think that as a nation we’d have learned something from this experience, but that’s the problem with a decentralized ad hoc system: If the federal government screws something up, the states and cities can simply ignore it. And in their current situations, where many cities are facing ever increasing demand as a result of welfare reform, and it’s commonly perceived that there aren’t any short-term alternatives other than to pour money into family-care and babysitting arrangements, the choice they’ll make is pretty obvious. “We’re told that more money is coming down because of the welfare to work reform,” says Ronnie Fisher, assistant director of The University Settlement Society—a city-funded childcare center in Manhattan. “But instead of money coming down to expand licensed childcare, it goes to pay babysitters.”

There is a tiny bit of good news in national childcare: Because the state and federal government are not giving a lot of attention to creating a rational childcare system, a handful of non-profit groups and enlightened local officials have stepped up to the coordination challenge. Chicago’s Ounce of Prevention Fund recently completed a 24,000-square-foot state-of-the-art center for children aged zero to three by tapping the Chicago Board of Education for land and money, Head Start and Early Head Start for additional funding, and the Chicago construction industry for in-kind donations. In New York, the Children’s Aid Society built the school where Brenda Uraga goes to her Head Start classes with a land grant from the city, and a combination of federal, state, and local grants to provide comprehensive family services. And in San Francisco, the city government has developed a highly successful public-private childcare venture called “Starting Points.”

But of course this is only good news if you happen to live in San Francisco, or you luck into something like a P.S. 5 or Ounce of Prevention slot. It’s not going to do a lot to lift the prospects of the average poor kid living in, for example, Texas—where the level of childcare regulation scrapes the bottom of the national barrel, and where your interests are represented by politicians like House Majority Whip Tom Delay, who ranted last year that childcare (that’s right, childcare—not the lack of it) was responsible for everything from gun violence to the degeneration of the family, and complained bitterly on the floor of Congress that: “We place our children in daycare centers where they learn their socialization skills under the law of the jungle.”

If that’s true (and given the lack of regulation, one can see why it would be in Texas) then it really is a national disaster. Enriching childcare is the last best chance that we have to give our neediest kids what the American privileged classes give their children as a birthright—equality of opportunity. It is the way out for them and for us as well—the means to throw a wrench into the poverty cycle and to reduce the flow of kids into special ed classes that soak up on the order of $35 billion a year of our public education money. And yet this potent combination of social justice and enlightened self interest has produced precious little in the way of productive political action. Why? Two hypotheses:

The first is the muffling power of class division when it comes to these issues. The influence classes simply don’t have to confront this problem. They can pay their way into posh programs. And if your biggest childcare problem is deciding between fancy day schools like Spence and Brearley, you will probably never see the impact that inadequate care has on either lower income children or the nation’s public schools. You probably won’t read about it either, as the major papers’ front page childcare stories tend to be on topics that give upper middle class couples something to talk about at cocktail hour but are of infinitesimal importance in the greater scheme of things—painful or pain-free childbirth, television or no television for little Amanda, family bed or no family bed? Often as not, the hard-hitting stuff (for example, the two New York Times stories referred to earlier in this article) appears further back in the paper—with other local news.

And that’s the second point, which is that this issue has for all intents and purposes been captured by the devolutionary forces of American politics, who treat all matters relating to education as sacred states’ rights turf. A number of people I spoke to in preparing this article told me that states would not under any circumstances permit federal control over, or even influence on, local childcare centers. But what about the rights of the children involved? It would be one thing for the states rights crowd to take this position if the states had a solid plan for dealing with America’s childcare crisis. But it is unacceptable in light of what is actually happening out there. “Our children shouldn’t be a political football,” observes University of Chicago developmental researcher Delores Norton. “And that’s what happens when the states have all the discretion.”

The bottom line is that childcare is a national problem and somebody has to be held accountable. If the federal government is going to subsidize the states to handle it, then it has to hold the states accountable for meeting appropriate standards—from educational content, to health and safety regulation, to the amount of coverage that the states provide their children out of their own pockets. With regard to the latter, Rhode Island’s example of providing guaranteed care up to 250 percent of the poverty line seems like one worth emulating, if we want to reach enough of the families and children who need assistance.

If the states fall down on this job, however, then the federal government is going to have to figure out another way to come at the problem. Most childcare advocates hope that they will do something along the lines of the Head Start program—i.e., working intensively with local communities to fund and oversee the creation of a national daycare system. This would require the federal government to gather a database and start coming up with a firmer sense of what and where the nation’s childcare needs lie. But if community partnerships leave some children unserved, then the feds may have to consider stepping in themselves. The states rights types will squawk, but let them. Washington has a long and honorable history of taking a firm hand when issues concerning core national values, social justice, and economic security are at stake. Think about Franklin Delano Roosevelt creating the WPA to put America back to work. Or the Kennedy and Johnson administrations ushering through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It won’t be cheap. According to The Brookings Institution, it would cost in the neighborhood of $30 billion a year to make a high-quality two-year program available for every child in America coming from a family with less than $30,000 of income per year (which is somewhat lower than the cap proposed above). But surely a country that is thinking about repurchasing $2 trillion of debt to protect social security for its seniors can see its way toward buying a ladder up for the nation’s children. They may not pack as much political weight as the seniors, but they are the nation’s future, and they deserve a fighting chance.

Michael Eskenazi is a political writer for Time Magazine Online

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