EDITORIAL: Caring for the Young, Part Five

Read Part One

According to certain scientific theories, Homo sapiens are members of a branch of the tribe Hominini, belonging to the family of great apes, and are characterized by erect posture and bipedal locomotion; manual dexterity and increased tool use; and a general trend toward larger, more complex brains and societies.

And larger, more complex governments.

I’m not a scientist, but as far as I can tell, humans also managed to rear their young for 50,000 years in much the same manner and with much the same success rate as other mammals — and without the need for government-funded institutions to provide “early care and education” for children under the age of 6.

But times change, and we Hominins are often inclined to change along with them. Over the past 150 years or so — the blink of an eye, compared to 50,000 years of Hominini history — mothers have increasingly come to the conclusion that earning a paycheck at a job outside the home was more important than raising their own children. This belief is particularly common in America and Northern Europe, and is closely related to the belief that food and clothing and shelter should be purchased rather than produced by the family.

Thus, the apparent “need” for more childcare options in the little town of Pagosa Springs.

The stated goal of the Early Care and Education (ECE) Work Group was to discover whether Pagosa Springs needed additional childcare slots, based on parental desires. That is to say, the goal of the study was not to find out “what’s the very best environment for young children,” but rather, “how many moms wanted to leave their toddler or preschooler in some else’s care for most of the child’s waking hours — and how those parental desires might be subsidized by the community.”

We are here listening to Work Group volunteer and current County commissioner Michael Whiting, speaking during the Tuesday, April 25, joint Town-County work session:

“I would refer you guys to a Rice University study — not so much for the study itself, but what’s interesting is the work done by a bunch of economists based on that data. They suggest that if you ‘super-charge’ kids going into Kindergarten, what you end up with is a net return — starting in middle school and running out through high school — of about $200,000 per kid, per generation. That’s real dollars. Savings in law enforcement, and public assistance, and higher graduation rates.

“These economists calculated $200,000. Per head, per generation.”

Here is a study that addresses the economic issues Mr. Whiting is referring to:

“Exceptional Benefits” by Robert G. Lynch, published by UNICEF. (You can download the study here.)

Mr. Lynch also refers to a “bunch of economists” who have theories about the financial return to society from institutional childcare situations such as the much-cited Perry Preschool Project, conducted between 1962 and 1967 in Michigan.

From Mr. Lynch’s essay:

One hundred and twenty-three African American children with low IQs (in the 70 to 85 range) and from families with low socioeconomic status were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one enrolled in a preschool program and one not. Those enrolled in preschool attended for two school years at ages three and four. Services included daily 2.5-hour classes and weekly 1.5-hour home visits with mother and child. Evaluations of the children were performed annually until the children reached age 11, and then again at ages 14, 15, 19, and 27…

Each time the children were evaluated, important benefits of the preschool program emerged. For example, by age 10 only 17% of the preschool children had been held back a grade or placed in special education compared to 38% of children who had not been placed in preschool. By age 14 the preschoolers had significantly higher achievement scores, and by age 19 they had higher literacy scores and grade-point averages…

The Perry Preschool Project is often cited in support of institutionalized preschool programs — such as, for example, Head Start — because the one hundred and twenty three African American children with low IQs were evaluated and compared, based on whether they were provided the daily classes or whether they were in the control group that received no classes.

Again, from Mr. Lynch’s essay:

Preliminary evidence for the children at age 41 indicates “that program participants continued to commit half as many violent crimes as non-participants, and that subsequently, the number of them in prison, and the time they spent there, was substantially less than for non-participants.”

A benefit-cost analysis by Barnett (1993) found $108,002 in benefits and $12,356 in costs per preschool participant (in 1992 dollars), a benefit-cost ratio of 8.74-to-1.

Not quite the $200,000 in benefits claimed by Commissioner Michael Whiting at last Tuesday’s meeting, but still pretty impressive numbers.

Additional “statistically significant benefits” from the Perry Preschool Project are shown here:

As we might note, the Perry Preschool Project was not a full-day childcare program, but was, instead, a daily educational program that lasted only 2.5 hours. In other words, this was basically a tutoring program for children with low IQs. Nevertheless, its statistical results are often cited in support of institutionalized childcare for young children.

The Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention and the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program were in fact daily childcare programs, and Mr. Lynch quotes the statistical “economic benefits” from these programs, per child, as $136,000 and $48,000 respectively. Presumably, we could deduct the cost of administering the program from these claimed amounts, in which case the average benefits would be $100,000 and $41,000.

Again, not quite the $200,00 per child quoted by Mr. Whiting, but still impressive.

And then, we have.. Head Start.

From Mr. Lynch’s essay:

Head Start is the best-known and largest early childhood intervention program in the United States. Head Start provides early childhood education and development services, health services, and nutrition services to preschool children from low-income families as well as education services for their parents. The typical program runs part-time during one school year for children age four. There are about 900,000 children enrolled annually in the program (less than two-thirds of those who are eligible) at a cost of over $6 billion.

Before discussing the outcomes of the Head Start programs, two caveats are in order. First, one should not expect the results of the Head Start programs to be as impressive as those of the other programs discussed. Head Start is generally ranked lower in quality than the other programs in terms of teacher-pupil ratios, class size, teacher education and experience, teacher pay, and the safety and cleanliness of the preschools.

What we did not see, in any of the studies described in Mr. Lynch’s essay, was a comparison between children enrolled in institutional “preschools” as compared to children enrolled in one of the popular alternatives here in Archuleta County: home-based childcare, also known as “family childcare”. In fact, I have yet to come across any studies that compared home-based childcare to, for example, the institutional programs provided by the federally-subsidized Head Start program.

There’s one thing we can easily compare, however. According to the ECE Work Group’s year-long research, the cost of “high quality” care in a childcare center such as Seeds of Learning is about $12,000 per year, per child.

The ECE group calculated the average cost per child for home-based childcare as $7,500.

Home-based childcare has very low capital costs — compared to institutional childcare — because the caregivers simply welcome the children into their own home. There is no need to build a $2 million “center.” We currently have 9 home-based childcare providers in Archuleta County, according to the “Colorado Shines” website. (The ECE report listed seven providers.)

When the ECE Work Group presented their three suggested “models” for taxpayer- or business-subsidized expansion of childcare in Archuleta County, each of the models was described this way:

Model Parameters: Limit support to children enrolled in centers with Colorado Shines rating of 3-5.

The only childcare providers who’ve made the effort to obtain a “Colorado Shines” ranking of 3-5 are Seeds of Learning and Head Start. But if home-based childcare produces outcomes for families and children that is comparable to — or superior to — the outcomes produced by institutional centers, at around half the cost…

… why didn’t the ECE Work Group include home-based care as a preferred option?

Read Part Six…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.