Education

The challenge of quality vs access

Center time in VPK at St. Christopher’s Children’s Center includes time for artwork, which also helps develops a child’s fine motor skills. Photo credit: Ron Stallcup

The man who is at the top of the state’s heap when it comes to early learning acknowledges the limitations when discussing what quality should look like.

And how a parent can get guidance about how to make a good choice.

“Quite candidly, it’s just as challenging as a state administrator,” says Rodney MacKinnon, executive director of the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning. “It’s a complicated issue that has a lot of underlying conflicts in it.”

MacKinnon’s office offers a “quality checklist” they encourage parents to use when evaluating a childcare center. It recommends visiting at least three centers before choosing one.

The Florida Office of Early Learning's childcare center choice checklist.

The Florida Office of Early Learning’s childcare center choice checklist.

“A lot of the things are hard to quantify,” MacKinnon says. “If you walk into a center and the staff are happy, organized, they’re friendly with the parents, who along with the children, are the customer, they have an intentional lesson plan, these things speak to a passion for caring about the kids in a  deliberative and intentional manner.

“I know it can be tough, to go out and see different childcare centers, see them at a busy time, and see them at a not so busy time, and talk to staff. (But) that’s the most valuable gauge of things.”

That is more than just a challenge of time. Cost is a real issue parents face daily.

According to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, Florida is one of 23 states where childcare for children under 4 costs more annually than a year of in-state college tuition.

The Wall Street Journal's data analysis for Florida among the states where a year of childcare is more expensive than a year of tuition at a state university.

The Wall Street Journal’s data analysis for Florida among the states where a year of childcare is more expensive than a year of tuition at a state university.

According to the Pensacola Metro Dashboard, the cost of childcare can consume on average 49 percent of the median income of a single-parent household in Escambia County; in Santa Rosa, the figure is 30 percent.

It’s worth noting, too that the Dashboard also found that 40 percent of households in Escambia County are single-parent families.

The dashboard also notes that the per capita income in Escambia County is $38,389.

Another factor to consider: the median hourly wage for a childcare worker in the Pensacola area is $9.26. The state figure is $9.55.

That means many of the very people who are paid to care for our children at the most important time in their developmental history make about $20,000 a year and don’t earn enough money to afford good childcare for their own children.

MacKinnon says another tension in the mix — quality vs. access.

“From a state administrator standpoint, if we focus on implementing things like inputs (higher credential standards for teachers, in-service, lower staff-student ratios, hearing, vision, and health screenings, and meals) that (the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University) favors, for example, a side effect of those is that they naturally raise the cost of child care.

“And they raise the cost for all parents, not just the parents receive our benefits” like the School Readiness program, which subsidizes childcare costs for working parents who meet certain income guidelines, MacKinnon says.

Statewide, School Readiness serves 210,000 children — and has a waitlist of about 50,000 more. There are 3,032 children in Escambia County in the School Readiness program. Of those, 1,782 are ages 5 and under.

“We can’t serve all the kids. We know that the funds that we expend to improve quality frequently result in fewer children served,” MacKinnon says.

“The reality is that there are a lot of areas that don’t have quality providers,” MacKinnon says. “Just cavalierly, telling a parent, ‘you can’t get a voucher to send your child to care because we don’t think your centers are good enough, I don’t think that’s a good approach.

“In Union County, which is on the Georgia line by the Okefenokee, the entire county is a high poverty Census tract and I think they’ve only got four providers in the whole county. If we were to just do that, I don’t know the quality of those four, but if we were to go in and say that and they don’t meet these standards, we’ve yanked the program out of that county.”

MacKinnon says he’d like to do is offer incentives to high-quality centers to go to the underserved areas, “to use the carrot as opposed to the stick on the existing providers.

“I do think the Legislature will continue to support performance based funding. I know the governor does. The governor is also supported general increases in funding  to School Readiness and VPK, but we didn’t get them.”