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Can Parents Access Enough Information to Judge For-Profit Childcare?

In a new paper examining the role that private enterprise plays in providing early-childhood education services, a Harvard University doctoral candidate argues that stronger and more uniform state oversight of all child-care programs would go a long way toward elevating the quality of the for-profit programs that so many parents rely on for the care and development of their children ages 0-5.

A major barrier to quality among private providers—who run the gamut from formal daycare centers to informal, in-home providers—is that most parents don't truly know what constitutes a "high-quality" program, and even when they do, they have a hard time gaining firsthand information about it, writes Todd Grindal, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Grindal, whose paper was published today by the American Enterprise Institute, writes that while parents can size up a range of factors such as cost, safety, cleanliness, and staffing ratios, the "important day-to-day interactions between children, teachers, and content remain largely hidden from view." And, he notes, once children are enrolled in a program, "parents generally spend little time observing classroom practice." When parents can't or don't observe and ask hard questions about quality, Gindal writes that "some providers may not invest in some essential but disguised elements of program quality."

His paper is part of AEI's special series titled Private Enterprise in American Education.

Because 62 percent of American children under the age of five are regularly cared for by someone other than a parent and because the more highly regulated and generally higher-quality, publicly funded programs such as Head Start and state prekindergarten cannot meet all the needs for early-childhood services, Grindal argues that states need to bring the same kind of oversight and demands for quality to private programs. To do that, of course, will cost states money.

Grindal spells out two major steps that states should take to ensure quality and access to information for parents across all sectors of early-childhood services. The first is adopting a quality rating system—something along the lines of an easy-to-use restaurant guide—that would provide financial incentives to improve quality. The second step is for policymakers to provide the same oversight of private programs for infants and toddlers that public programs receive, especially those so-called mom-and-pop, in-home providers.

Of course, a number of states have already established, or are working toward establishing parent-friendly ratings systems for early child-care providers, especially those states that have already won, and those that are seeking, federal Race to the Top grants for early childhood.

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