preschool children

Every day, parents across Michigan make difficult decisions about who will care for their children. What moms and dads want is a safe place where their kids are happy, healthy and learning; however, what they can afford or find is often much different. The question is, as a parent, how do you choose? Which of these priorities would you give up?

Although Michigan has made considerable strides in recent years to improve the lives of our youngest children and their families — particularly with the establishment of the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Great Start (OGS), the development of a statewide plan to coordinate public investment in young children and the recent expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) — we’re still struggling in some important areas, like child care.

A recent report prepared by Public Sector Consultants (PSC) found that the majority of children under four years of age in our state are being raised in households where all parents work, and many of these young children spend most of their waking hours in child care. Therefore, the quality of that care is paramount. Unfortunately, of the more than 9,000 centers, group homes and family homes currently operating in Michigan, only 163 have earned the state’s top quality rating.

Bright Ideas spoke with PSC vice president and report author Michelle Richard about how she and her colleagues worked with the OGS to identify what is working well in child care, what problems families and providers continue to face and what specific steps the state and its partners can take to make improvements.

There are so many tough choices the state has to make regarding where to invest limited resources. Why should child care be a priority? 

The research is very clear. It’s much easier, and often less expensive, to invest in young children than it is to try to remediate problems later. Data have shown again and again that high‐​quality, evidence‐​based programs make a difference in children’s academic lives, social lives and long‐​term outcomes. That’s why we need to make sure that our state’s children — particularly during those first thousand days — have access to high‐​quality child care experiences. And, for parents, we need to make those experiences affordable.

In the report, you maintain that high‐​quality child care can help families out of poverty. How can it do that? 

If we want moms, in particular, to re‐​enter the workforce — and we expect them to as part of some of our social programs — then we need to make sure they have access to high‐​quality, reliable, affordable child care in their community. Sometimes when we talk about child care in economic terms, we focus a lot on having care that is affordable, or in a convenient location or open when parents need care. While those elements are critical, we can’t lose sight of the importance of quality. We need child care providers that are keeping children safe and helping them learn new skills and grow developmentally so they can succeed long term.

And how does quality child care relate to economic development? 

Michigan’s unemployment rate is dropping, and if we want to spur economic growth, we need to find qualified people to fill available jobs. We know that sometimes parents choose to stay at home instead of going to work because they don’t have a good place for their children to go. If we can expand access to quality child care, then we will likely see more parents returning to the workforce, which helps expand our talent pool.

So, the value of providing high‐​quality child care is clear, but our state’s investment is falling?

It is. In 2007, our payments for child care subsidies exceeded $400 million, and we served over 106,000 children each month. By 2013, that amount had fallen to $135 million and we served only 43,000 children each month.

To what do you attribute that?

A number of things. First, we had a lot of families who were hit hard by the recession, which lowered demand for child care. If you’re not working, your need for outside help is lessened.

Second, when we were out on the road talking with people, we learned that the application process is extremely arduous. Last year, roughly 80,000 people applied for the subsidy program, and 60,000 of them were denied. While it’s reasonable to believe that some of those people didn’t meet program requirements, it’s also reasonable to assume that there’s something about the application process itself that’s weeding eligible families out.

Third, Michigan’s current reimbursement rates are very low — in fact, they’re among the lowest in the country. There’s a big gap between what providers charge and what the subsidy pays. That means that some providers won’t take the subsidy at all or that parents — many of whom just don’t have the resources — have to find a way to augment it.

The big question is: What does affordable mean? Child care in Michigan today nearly rivals the cost of attending a four‐​year public institution. From the day your child is born, people tell you to start saving for college, but, in a matter of weeks, you have to get him or her into child care, which is equally expensive. This is a challenge for all families!

There are so many ways to approach improving child care and increasing investment. How did you decide what to focus on? 

While we did conduct some research regarding what other states are doing, we spent most of our time talking with parents and providers across Michigan, asking them what they thought was working and where we needed to improve.

We did that in a few ways. We held small focus groups with parents, held much larger forums with community members and providers and conducted an online survey. In the end, we heard what more than 1,000 people in 72 counties wanted the State and its partners to do to improve access to and the quality of child care. These conversations were powerful. Sometimes you think your experience is unique to you, but when you start talking with more people, common themes emerge — themes around which we built our recommendations. It’s exciting to be able to amplify voices in that way.

So, one of the challenges stakeholders identified over and over again is affordability. What can we do to help ease the financial burden of child care for parents, particularly those in low‐​income families? 

We believe that Michigan needs to start by increasing financial assistance to families. Although we want the system to be better, many parents need child care right now and we must do more to help them access it.

There are a few different ways we can increase assistance. First, we need to improve the application process so that more families can access the subsidy under our current guidelines, which stipulate that families must be at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify.

Second, we need to increase reimbursement rates so they’re fair to parents and providers. Michigan has some of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country, and low rates make it more difficult for parents to access quality care.

Third, we need to re‐​examine our eligibility criteria, which are among the strictest in the country. The median eligibility criteria nationally is about 180 percent of the federal poverty level. If we increased eligibility to 180 percent, we could serve 18,000 more kids.

Increasing financial assistance will help with the access, but what about quality? What steps can we take to make the system better?

We think it makes sense to focus first on those programs that are already delivering high‐​quality care and explore ways to expand the number of low‐​income children they serve. For example, what if we contracted with the best programs for a certain number of slots and tasked them with finding eligible families to fill the slots? That would take some weight off parents’ shoulders and some of the risk out of the equation for quality providers.

Along the same lines, we need to be more creative about how we deem families eligible for those high‐​quality programs. So, instead of making each individual family apply for the subsidy, what if we identified high‐​need communities and said, “Everyone who lives in this neighborhood, or this census tract or this city is automatically eligible?” That would likely increase participation in the program and give many more children access to quality care.

Of course, we also need to focus on improving quality broadly. As a state, we’ve been working on this through programs such as Great Start to Quality, which provides technical assistance and support to child care providers, sets quality standards and works to help programs achieve those standards. Parents can also access an online tool to identify providers in their area, look at their quality ratings and check out their health and safety licensing.

But improving quality across the entire spectrum takes a long time and can be very expensive. For example, if there’s an expectation that providers use a certain curriculum, then providers have to purchase that curriculum, learn how to use it and train their staff. There’s a cost associated with that.

Do we have the workforce we need to improve quality statewide? 

In K – 12 education, we talk all the time about how teachers are critically important to improving quality; it’s the same thing for child care. But, so many of the people working in this field don’t have the training and support they need. We have to find a way, going forward, to make sure these workers have access to credentials and professional development, and that they’re paid for their knowledge and investment of time. Right now, the average child care worker in Michigan makes minimum wage, which often means they’re receiving public assistance themselves. How can we build a big, high‐​quality system on a highly transient, minimum‐​wage workforce?

At the same time, there’s tension here, because child care is already quite expensive. If you have a more highly qualified, highly trained workforce, then the cost is going to go up. Can parents afford to pay more? Is the state willing to subsidize higher salaries?

Obtaining accurate information about child care is also a problem, isn’t it? 

It is. We know that child care providers are supported by a few different state government agencies. One of them does quality rating, one of them does licensing and another handles eligibility. Although there’s been a significant effort to increase coordination, it doesn’t always work the way we want. What happens, then, is that we have parents, caseworkers and providers who all have different information. That’s why figuring out how to provide everyone with the same — and correct — information is imperative.

Some options for addressing this problem include establishing a hotline — one place where case workers, providers and parents can go for accurate information; continuing to improve existing websites (like greatstarttoquality​.org), which work well for some parents, but not all; and having an ombudsman — one person at the highest level whose sole job is to improve child care in Michigan.

Making the improvements we’ve been talking about seems like a daunting task. Can we do it?

Yes! When we were traveling across the state talking to people, we found that they were generally very hopeful that we can make significant improvements to our child care system. Sometimes when you discuss other policies and programs in Michigan, you get the sense that people are in the doldrums. But when we asked them about child care, they were much more positive. They noted an increasing recognition of the importance of investing in young kids early, that we have several partnerships and collaborations that are already starting to make a real difference for families and that the system is aligned now, more than ever, to obtain support. That’s very encouraging.

PSC has developed a strong repertoire of work in the early learning and development arena. Why is this issue so important to you and the firm?

I was an early elementary teacher. In fact, I started my career interning in GSRP classrooms. So, it’s exciting that the company I work for has a lot of passion and expertise in this space. We’ve spent a significant amount of time looking at what other states are doing, listening to what parents and providers want us to do and trying to figure out how to bring all that information together in a way that makes sense for Michigan. Figuring out what to do next in a sea of information is where I believe PSC really adds value.

I’m also a mom who needs child care. When we were working on this report, I was trying to locate high‐​quality and affordable options, figure out who I could trust and how to transition my baby into a new experience. Then, I was coming into work and trying to figure out how to do the same thing for every child in Michigan. I’ll admit there were some days when it was a bit too much, but it was worth it. At PSC, we’ve tried to be very intentional about building on the state’s successes and making sure we’re moving the ball forward for all children.

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