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Study: Unionizing Child-Care Providers Could Lead to Higher-Quality Care

Unionized child-care providers are more likely to seek state-regulated licenses, a proxy for program quality, according to a study presented last week at the Association for Public Policy and Management conference in New Mexico.

Todd Grindal, the lead author on the study and a researcher with the independent research firm Abt Associates, looked at the changes among some providers of home-based child care in Illinois after they unionized and reached their first collective bargaining agreement with the state in 2006. All of the child-care providers included in the study were paid primarily through state subsidies to low-income families seeking child care. They were able to unionize as de facto state employees.

Illinois was one of the first states to see the formation of child-care worker unions, though others, not without controversy, have followed. Massachusetts child-care workers now have a union, though not all of them are happy about it. And child-care workers in Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont and California, among others, are also in the midst of debates about whether or not to allow the formation of unions, Grindal said.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that home health workers in Illinois could not be made to pay union dues has raised the question about whether home-based child-care-provider unionization should be permitted. Grindal said less time has been spent on how unionization affects child-care quality.

"Our hope is to inform this debate with some evidence," he said.

Grindal and his team found that "subsidy-receiving Illinois infants and toddlers spent an average of 6.4 to 7 percentage points more hours being cared for in licensed settings, as compared to license-exempt settings in the three years following child-care unionization," according to the report. Since licensed care has been found to routinely provide a higher quality of care, this uptick in licenses can be seen as a positive sign, Grindal said.

However, for reasons not fully explained by the study, there were also fewer children receiving subsidized care three years after home-based child-care providers formed their union.

"As a result of bargaining there were increased costs" like incentives for home-based providers to participate in the state's quality rating system and money for health insurance for union members, Grindal said. Though the study does not include an evaluation of the new expenses, Grindal said it was likely that "given those increased investments, there was less of an expansion of the subsidy population."

Trading higher quality for serving fewer students is an issue that others in early education are beginning to face as well. Several Ohio Head Start centers offered fewer spots to children this year after making quality improvements to comply with new regulations, according to Jessica Brown at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Despite this concern, Grindal said policymakers should see the results of his study as an argument for allowing home-based child-care workers to unionize.

"Of all of the different types of care kids get, the one that needs the most focus is subsidized care," Grindal said. "These are the children most at risk for adversity at a time in their life when they're most malleable. Unionization appears to move the dial on license-exempt versus licensed care. It is really promising."

Grindal's report is currently under review at the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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