Introduction: Early Care and Education at a Crossroads
Despite its importance for children’s development, the Early Care and Education (ECE) field has historically often been excluded from broader conversations about education quality and investment. This is changing: an increasing number of state and federal leaders are prioritizing public funding and support for early education. There is still much work to be done to pay and support ECE providers like the skilled educators they are.
As support and investment in ECE increase, policy makers should celebrate the diversity of options available to families and ensure that future public investments are inclusive of all types of ECE models. This goal has much in common with NACSA’s view on charter authorizers’ ongoing work to increase access to quality, expand parent choice, and implement strong accountability. The charter and ECE fields have much to learn from each other.
The ECE field—like charter schooling and authorizing—is at an inflection point. Both sectors use a mixed delivery system (there is a range of charter school types, just as there is a range of ECE provider types), and both currently face labor shortages, compensation pressures, and chronic system underfunding. The ECE sector has long faced a fundamental challenge: high-quality care is too expensive for most families to afford, while the educators who provide this care are dramatically underpaid, earning less than $30,000 per year on average. In the face of an increasingly competitive labor market, providers have particularly struggled in recent years to find and retain qualified staff. Federal relief funds helped many providers supplement staff pay and keep their doors open; as these funds expire, many providers are facing a severe funding and workforce crisis.
At the same time, there is an increasing recognition of the need for more stable public investment into care and learning for our youngest children. The Build Back Better legislation that passed the House in late 2021 held the potential for a dramatically expanded and transformed ECE system, although it fell short of enactment in the Senate. Some states, including New Mexico, Illinois, Minnesota, and Vermont, are making historic investments to expand access to subsidized care and raise wages for providers. As parts of the ECE field gain access to more stable funding, there is an opportunity to invest in quality—which can mean different things to families and educators in different settings.
The policy decisions made in the next few years will set the course of the ECE system for years to come. As policymakers approach these challenges, they can learn from high-quality charter school authorizers’ work. A “one-size-fits-all” approach will not support the diverse needs of ECE providers. The lessons that NACSA has learned from its charter school authorizing experience can guide us toward an approach that better reflects the diversity of the ECE field, forming a “north star” of quality to work toward as we rebuild.
One of the crucial insights of charter school authorizing is to measure outcomes rather than inputs. This is an important goal, although it looks fundamentally different in early childhood, when each child is developing at their own pace. Unlike in K-12 education, young children generally do not take standardized tests; assessments are developmental and formative rather than summative. As a result, many state Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) for early childhood providers rely heavily on inputs, such as credentials held by educators, class size ratios, and facility features. These inputs may be correlated with quality—for example, small class sizes support more high-quality adult-child interactions—but they can also disadvantage programs with fewer financial resources. For instance, an educator with decades of experience and an exceptional ability to nurture young children may not receive “credit” toward a higher quality rating if she does not also hold a formal educational credential.
The ECE field can learn from NACSA’s “multiple measures” approach to build a more flexible and outcomes-oriented approach to measuring quality. Such an approach could consider factors like classroom observations, family satisfaction, and measures of kindergarten readiness and success. Measuring these outcomes may require better coordination between ECE and K-12 systems to track children’s success over time, including a feedback loop between ECE settings and elementary education.
Like charter schools, ECE programs come in different shapes and sizes. The ECE field encompasses everything from a home-based provider caring for a few children in her own home, to large community-based child care centers, to school-based preschool. Programs have different philosophical approaches: Montessori programs embrace child-directed learning, while Head Start programs emphasize wraparound support for the entire family. Nonetheless, state evaluations of quality often apply a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, state pre-K programs often lay out requirements for facilities and staff credentials that are designed for school-based settings, which can exclude community-based and home-based providers from participating in these public programs.
High-quality charter authorizers offer a model for flexible, yet rigorous, oversight that uses metrics that can accommodate different instructional models. These accountability and performance frameworks create incentives to meet quality outcomes, while giving programs flexibility to reach those in their own way. As NACSA’s recent report puts it, “More than any one proven resource or practice, what NACSA and the authorizing field have developed is a mindset and process of continuous evolution and adjustment.”
Many states have funding streams dedicated to improving ECE program quality. The sources of these funding streams should learn from authorizers’ flexible, outcomes-oriented approach. More work is needed to develop a differentiated approach to quality to ensure that different types of providers can succeed.
Community-driven Decision Making
The ECE field has a long history of engaging families and communities in decisions. Since the 1960s, Head Start Policy Councils have made families and community members partners in important financial and governance decisions. Many ECE providers have staff specifically dedicated to engaging and supporting families’ needs.
Because ECE programs largely operate independently, outside the purview of a school district or other regional organization, many areas have a gap at the regional level when it comes to assessing community need, equitably distributing slots, and seeking community input on new or expanded program models.
Some states are investing in regional councils or networks to address these needs. For example, Birth-Five Councils in Illinois conduct regional needs assessments, build local relationships, and support the community with developing action plans to address local needs. Similarly, Ready Start Networks in Louisiana assess local demand for early care and education, develop strategic plans, and identify local funding that can be leveraged to support access.
Effective charter authorizers provide a model for these new organizations to help regions think holistically about need, demand, and diversity of options for families. To meet a community’s needs, both charter authorizers and regional early learning councils must understand where the need is and what kind of need it is. For example, an area near a hospital may need more home-based providers who can provide non-traditional-hours care to accommodate workers with overnight shifts, while an area with a large concentration of recent immigrants may need to prioritize culturally and linguistically responsive curricula and educators. Without this collaborative, centralized enrollment planning, communities may inadvertently end up investing in programs that do not match families’ real needs.
For both ECE providers and charter schools, operational capacity is a prerequisite to offering a high-quality educational program. Like charter schools, ECE providers typically have disproportionately complex public funding streams to manage, relative to their size. Even a small early learning program may be blending a variety of funds with different use and reporting requirements, including state child care subsidies, private tuition, state pre-K funds, federal Head Start grants, and other grants or fundraising. In addition, many ECE providers struggle to adopt business practices that would make their programs more sustainable, such as accessing efficient back-office services and effectively tracking enrollment and tuition to ensure that fees are paid on time.
The ECE field can learn from charter authorizers’ assessments of the most important operational factors that make a program viable over the long term. The ECE field also needs to go beyond assessing viability to supporting providers to develop their operational capacity. This can mean providing training, on-call support, and easy access to shared services that take the burden off small programs. At the system level, it also means streamlining public funding and reporting requirements to reduce the burden on educators, allowing them to focus on their most important work: supporting children and families.