More Accountability Needed: Child Care Aid by Race

May marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that outlawed “separate but equal.”   In the decades since 1954, much as been done to integrate schools, boost performance rates among all children and close the achievement gap that is first noticed in kindergarten. As a nation, we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.

The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores of our nation’s 4th graders show that:

  • 21 percent of white 4th graders read below grade level;
  • 47 percent of Hispanic 4th graders read below grade level; and
  • 50 percent of African American 4th graders read below grade level.

Studies have well documented the school readiness gap when children enter kindergarten. African American and Hispanic children enter kindergarten below their white peers in reading and math related school readiness skills.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to look at where children are before they enter school and strengthen the quality of early childhood settings. Most states now operate Pre-K programs. As studies show, Pre-K can make a difference.  But, Pre-K is not a panacea. The reality is, that most children are in some form of child care every week.  Given the hours that children spend in child care, and the age at which they begin child care settings, it is time to strengthen the quality of child care (for children age 4 and younger) to ensure that children start school ready to succeed and to close the achievement gap.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is the primary source of federal child care funding to states. More than 1.5 million children each year receive assistance through CCDBG. The split between white and African American children among CCDBG children assisted is about equal (43% of the children whose care is paid for with CCDBG dollars are white; 42% of the children are African American).

What we know from the most recent (FY2012) CCDBG data is: overall, about 256,241 children or 17 percent of the children whose care is paid for by CCDBG are in unlicensed care. While licensing requirements vary by state, little is known about the safety and quality of unlicensed settings – even if federal CCDBG subsidies are used to pay for it.  For example, there may be no training requirements for child care providers or only minimal training required – far below state licensing standards. There may be no health and safety requirements or only minimal requirements – far below state licensing standards. There may be no inspections or unlicensed settings may “self-certify” that they meet any state requirements (if they apply). Background checks for unlicensed child care providers receiving subsidies are mostly based on a name check, not a fingerprint check matched against state and federal records to prohibit those who might attempt to use an alias or circumvent a background screening system.

Unlicensed care does not mean illegal care. Some child care settings are license-exempt, which means that a state statute specifically exempts that category of care from licensing requirements. (For example, a state may specifically exempt “drop in” care, a child care setting in a mall designed to care for a child for a few hours on an irregular basis while a parent shops).  Some states do not license family child care homes until they reach a certain threshold of children. (For example, in 27 states, family child care homes are not required to have a license until they care for 4 or more unrelated children).

Why the attention to unlicensed care?   In 10 states, 30 percent or more of the children whose care is paid for with CCDBG funding are in unlicensed settings. (Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, and Oregon). For a table of CCDBG funded unlicensed care in all states, click here.  It may be that these settings are safe and offering quality care, but the reality is, we do not know.  What we do know is that minimum protections for children required by licensed care are not required.

In 18 states, 50 percent or more of the children whose care is paid for with CCDBG subsidies are African American.

Race Table Picture

The percentage of children under age 13 within each state in unlicensed care varies greatly. In Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, either no CCDBG dollars are spent on unlicensed care or 1 percent or fewer of the children whose care is paid for by CCDBG are in unlicensed care. Among the remaining states, the percentage of children in unlicensed care paid for by CCDBG varies from 72 percent in Hawaii to 2 percent in Georgia.

African American Children Under Age 5 in Unlicensed Care Paid for by CCDBG: What we know from the data is that for children under age 5, African American children are twice as likely to be in unlicensed care than white children (21.4 percent vs 11.8 percent).

Children Under Age 5 by Race

We know that the 4th grade reading test scores show that African American children are more than twice as likely compared to white children to read below grade level. We know that the school readiness gap is first noticed in kindergarten but does not begin in kindergarten. It’s time to bring more accountability to CCDBG funding to ensure that all children are in settings to promote their safety and healthy development.

There is much attention today to expanding Pre-K programs for 4 year-old children. That’s a great goal. However, the fact remains that for many children, child care is their early learning program.  From the research, we know that low income children are more likely to start school behind their more economically well-off peers. From a policy perspective, we know we have an opportunity with CCDBG dollars to ensure that low income children are in higher quality settings than they otherwise would be able to access. However, from the data, we know that nearly one-fifth of those who receive assistance are in unlicensed settings – settings that we know little about except that they are not required to have minimum protections for children.  And, from that same data, we know that African American children under age 5 whose care is paid for with a subsidy are twice as likely as white children to be in unlicensed care.

Sixty years after Brown vs Board of Education, we still have a long way to go. As we seek to close the achievement gap for students in K-12 schools, it is time to review the settings children are in before they start school. Our first step ought to be to review the settings children are in that are funded by taxpayer dollars. Licensed or unlicensed, are federal CCDBG dollars spent in an accountable manner? Are children, whose care is paid for with taxpayer dollars, in settings that are safe and that promote their healthy development?

It is troubling that given the plethora of research that underscores the importance and impact of quality child care on the school readiness of children, and particularly those at risk,  that  African American children under age five are twice as likely as white children to be in unlicensed settings.  If we truly care about school readiness, we can and should create more accountability for how our federal dollars are spent — for all children.