In California, partly as a result of Hollywood director Rob Reiner’s campaign, a special cigarette tax is channeling funds toward local care services, including after-school programs. While New York’s GOP Governor, George Pataki, hasn’t delivered fully on the promise of a universal pre-K program (he seems irritated that it will actually cost money), he’s moving in that direction. A number of other states are developing programs with names like the Brooklyn College Community Partnership, Child Care Matters and Smart Start.childhood-developement

These are promising developments. Still, most of the public money spent on childcare falls into the stingy, stigmatized, income-tested category. Of total federal childcare spending of about $11 billion in 1998, 39 percent went to Head Start and 28 percent to block grants that are targeted to the poor in most states. About 22 percent paid for the child and dependent-care tax credit, which mainly benefits affluent families. Assistance for low-income families remains grossly inadequate. Head Start, a model of quality in some respects, such as attention to children’s developmental needs and parental involvement, doesn’t meet the needs of working parents, because most programs are only half-day. Despite its vaunted popularity, Head Start still only reaches two out of five eligible children.

Block grants to the states are a mixed bag. In a few places, they are being well spent. Overall, however, less than 15 percent of families eligible for assistance actually receive it. For the most part, the funds that became available to states when their welfare rolls plummeted are either piling up unspent in state treasuries or being doled out in ineffective ways, including vouchers set at rates far too low to cover costs. Delays in reimbursing vouchers have become so extreme that some centers have simply stopped accepting them.

The wealthiest families don’t need to worry; they can buy their way into a Montessori school or an even more upscale equivalent, such as a full-time nanny or au pair. Most families, however, worry a lot. Childcare expenses take a huge chunk out of their budgets. In most urban areas it costs more to send a 4-year-old to childcare than it does to pay public college tuition for a 19-year-old. Families whose income slightly exceeds eligibility requirements are in a real bind–denied subsidies but unable to buy what they need. Not surprisingly, the percentage of children enrolled in preschool goes up along with income brackets.

The pressure not to raise prices makes it difficult to improve quality. In 1997 childcare workers earned a median wage of $7.03 cents an hour, in keeping with the cliche that they are paid less than parking-lot attendants. Less than half of all center workers receive fully covered health insurance for themselves; far fewer get coverage for their dependents. Not surprisingly, turnover rates are high–well over 30 percent per year in most big cities. It’s pretty hard for young children to bond with a caretaker in a revolving door.

Specialized training in early-childhood development improves the quality of care. Yet funding for such training remains uneven and unpredictable. In many places no training whatsoever is required. Almost everywhere, hairdressers are required to complete more formal training than childcare workers. Lack of regulation allows the childcare industry to draw from a reserve army of relatively unskilled labor. The most recent comprehensive national study of childcare-center quality gives it a low overall grade, with higher marks in more strictly regulated states.

Every time a local community gets a small dollop of additional funding for childcare, it has to decide whether to invest in quantity or quality. The only way to reduce the size of waiting lists is to increase the number of slots available. But the only way to improve quality is to pay childcare workers more, provide them with more training and impose higher standards. Those dispensing limited funds must also choose whether to target the neediest families, which tends to stigmatize programs and cause quality to decline. Advocates for universal care argue that in the long run, low-income families would benefit more from broader programs with fewer eligibility requirements. But how long will they have to wait? It’s a difficult question.

Communities also need to figure out how to meet the different needs of different age groups. Infant care is expensive but essential if parents are denied paid family leave and penalized for taking time off from paid employment. After-school care gives older kids more time for extracurricular activities, keeps them out of trouble and helps parents avoid the economic disadvantages of part-time jobs. Most political attention, however, focuses on expanding pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.

No wonder the childcare community is politically divided. Public schools are a logical place to expand pre-K and after-school programs, but traditional childcare providers recognize that this could drive them out of business. A more principled concern is that the public school bureaucracy might not be sensitive to the developmental needs of young children. Ironically, the same criticisms that independent daycare centers make of the educational bureaucracy are leveled at them by more informal family-care providers. In this chaotic environment, many state administrators drag their feet on spending available funds and keep waiting lists down by failing to publicize the programs already in place. Head Start administrators circle the wagons to defend their own program interests. This situation is not only incredibly inefficient; it’s also demoralizing to the many community activists being pitted against one another in their daily effort to wring a few more resources out of the system.

Various attempts to deal with these problems are currently under way. The Center for the Child Care Work Force, based in Washington, DC, has launched a Worthy Wage Campaign, designed to publicize poor wages and working conditions. Major trade unions, with a born-again awareness of work/family issues, are pushing childcare in the political arena as well as at the bargaining table. But none of these efforts are likely to succeed without a coordinated push, uniting parents and providers around a common agenda, to increase public support for childcare.

Which is why, at this point in the story, what’s needed is a sorcerer’s spell (come on, Harry Potter). Something simple, bold, appealing–in secular terms, a political vision. Fostering children’s capabilities is important, socially necessary work that contributes to our collective economic welfare. Our existing educational system was established in a different era, when mothers had few options but to stay at home. Expanding childcare could be framed as modernization of our educational system, not a simple extension but a transformation that could aim to integrate some of the ideals of care–nurturance, affection and personal connection–into the increasingly impersonal test-score-oriented world of school.

Two possible strategies for moving in this direction differ primarily in the level of public subsidy and the extent of integration with the existing public school system. The best example of a generous approach is the French system of universal nursery schools, or ecoles maternelles, for children ages 3 to 5, which are autonomous from but integrated into the larger school system. Fully subsidized by the government, this system encompasses private as well as public schools, enforcing national standards. Teachers of 3-year-olds are paid about the same as teachers of 16-year-olds. Nearly 100 percent of 3-to-5-year-olds attend.

Supplemented by infant-care facilities and wrap-around care for after school and holidays, the French system makes it possible for parents to engage in full-time employment with the assurance that their children are being well cared for. At the same time, a relatively generous parental-leave policy and family allowance gives parents some flexibility to stay home with their children. In an effort to reduce unemployment, the French have made it illegal for most employees to work more than thirty-five hours a week. As a result, wage-earners have more home time to devote to the care of children, parents and one another.

French nursery schools are expensive. Despite relatively high student/teacher ratios they cost about $5,500 a year per child. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution calculates that a similar program in the United States would cost about $8,000 a year per child. Multiply that times the number of children between the ages of 3 and 4 (many 5-year-olds already attend publicly funded kindergarten) and you get a very large number: about $61 billion. Subtract the federal funds we currently spend on early childhood education and care, about $11 billion, and it’s still a big number. And that’s leaving out the under-3s and after-school care for kindergartners and students.

Hence the appeal of a more modest and decentralized strategy developed by economists Barbara Bergmann and Suzanne Helburn. They call for a comprehensive voucherlike program that would subsidize virtually all forms of childcare (infants and toddler care, full-day pre-kindergarten, kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds and after-school programs for older children). Parents would make private contributions to childcare costs based on a sliding scale determined by family income. Parents could exercise a great deal of choice, using the vouchers to pay for care performed by all qualifying providers. Subsidy or voucher levels would be set at a level sufficient to pay for high-quality care and be accompanied by strict national regulation.

Universal in coverage but targeted in spending, this approach would obviously cost far less than complete public provision. Since there is no public system already in place, the risks of disruption are less than those entailed by voucher-based systems for primary and secondary education. Still, vouchers threaten to intensify existing differences in quality of care. The more decentralized structure is less conducive to efforts to improve the wages and working conditions of childcare workers. Some advocates, like myself, favor a more generous and less market-based approach.

Still, the Bergmann/Helburn proposal would represent a tremendous improvement over the existing patchwork. In addition to its inequities and inefficiencies, the current system tends to undermine its own political constituency. The bewilderingly long list of federal and state tax cuts, tax credits, tax exemptions, vouchers, tuition waivers, grants-in-aid and conditional subsidies makes it hard for parents even to figure out what they’re getting. It makes it almost impossible for taxpayers to see where their tax dollars are going.