Why is Finding Quality Early Care and Education so Challenging for so many Families with Young Children?

Listening to the excellent NPR series on child care has brought the struggle that many DC parents face to manage the steep cost of child care to the forefront of my mind. A new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that nearly one-third of parents paying for early care and education (ECE) report that these costs has caused financial strain in their household.


Echoing this sentiment, a recent report by New America found that the average cost of ECE the U.S. — $9,589 per year — edges out the average cost of in-state college tuition at $9,410. In the District, the average cost of full-time ECE is more than 90 percent of median rent. We’ve blogged about this before.


Despite this sizeable parent and public investment (the District’s child care subsidy reimbursement rates are among the highest in the country), too many ECE providers struggle to make ends meet financially. This, coupled with the fact that the District continues to lack enough high-quality ECE slots to accommodate its rapidly growing population of infants and toddlers leaves many, myself included, wondering: if we are spending so much on ECE, why does it seem like we are getting so little in return?


Depending on your perspective – from the working parent who needs quality ECE to get to their job to the struggling provider who’s trying to run a business – there are a few consistent issues we haven’t figured out yet. What should we expect of the ECE system as a whole? How should we prioritize our current and new investments to provide quality ECE for infants and toddlers? Why is finding quality ECE so challenging for so many families?


We currently have several programs in DC striving to create additional resources and supports for our infants and toddlers.


For both community and home-based ECE providers, DC hosts a federal pilot program focused on improving quality – the Quality Improvement Network (QIN). As the evaluation partner for the QIN project, we have been fortunate to partner with the community Hub partner agencies to continually assess how the implementation of this innovative project is progressing. It also provides all of us with a jumping off point for strategic dialogue among the QIN stakeholders to discuss the common challenges and potential pitfalls that have arisen thus far within the QIN network.


There is huge potential to create additional quality slots (in both community and home-based centers) for families with infants and toddlers. I am happy to share that this is the first time that we as a city have focused on a system-wide strategy vs. a single strategy (like increasing subsidies) to help focus on creating additional quality slots and providing additional resources for providers (what K-12 teachers would call instructional time). Just as we do for our education system, we must create a system of care for young children that is focused on providing them with strong social emotional and early learning opportunities.