AnalysisPandemic  

Analysis: 2 Strategies for States’ COVID Relief Funds — Make Early Childhood Programs Better, and Make Sure Low-Income Parents Know About Them

By Meghan McCormick and Sharon Huang | March 7, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has been raging for almost a year, driving temporary and permanent closures among hundreds of thousands of early care and education providers. President Joe Biden and House Democrats recently unveiled proposals that would allocate additional money to support child care providers in danger of closing and to help reopen programs that are currently closed. They also include funds for states to provide low-income families with child care subsidies and to improve the quality of early care and education for all children. States can prioritize using federal funds to help stabilize struggling child care providers while still making progress on the longer-term goal of enhancing equitable access to high-quality early care and education.

State policymakers should consider two strategies as part of their plans in distributing possible supplementary federal funds: improve the quality of existing programs by investing in evidence-based curricula paired with tailored professional development, and make information on existing high-quality programs more accessible to low-income families and families of color.

Despite bipartisan support for expanding the availability of publicly funded early care and education, research has shown that investment in early learning has become even more uneven across states and localities in recent years. Not only that; programs serving children from low-income households and children of color have lower levels of instructional quality than those serving higher-income white children, and they typically do not implement evidence-based curricula that support multiple areas of school readiness, such as language, literacy, math, science and social-emotional skills. A growing body of research by MDRC has found that implementation of these curricula, coupled with training and coaching, can substantially strengthen teacher practices, which can promote children’s academic and social-emotional development in the short and longer term.

States and districts can make small investments that go a long way toward improving equitable access to high-quality early care and education. For example, most state early learning programs mandate use of a curriculum and have requirements for teacher professional development. Choosing and implementing evidence-based curricula, with aligned training and coaching, can help improve program quality at-scale.

Boston used this approach to improve the quality of its public prekindergarten program, adjusting its model so that schools implemented two curricula, one focused on language/literacy and the other on math. The city allocated resources to provide prekindergarten teachers with initial and ongoing training as well as consistent coaching to support implementation of this model. Followup data showed that this effort succeeded at improving program quality across the district. Additional research found that the program had positive impacts on children’s skills at the start of kindergarten, with particularly large benefits for children from low-income households.

Beyond issues of instructional quality, early care and education programs serving low-income communities often present other barriers to enrollment. Publicly funded programs may not offer the sort of wraparound care that parents who work full time and during nontraditional hours rely on. High-quality programs may be located far away from low-income communities, creating transportation challenges for families. In locations where parents have access to multiple programs, the application process itself can be onerous. Parents must look for up-to-date information on the application timeline; they must research numerous options and determine how to rank choices without a central source of information; and they may wait months before receiving enrollment and acceptance notifications.

The pandemic has almost certainly magnified these deep and persistent inequities. States should leverage data in new ways to identify families who are unable to access, but most likely to benefit from, such programming. Now more than ever before, parents need clear information to help them navigate the early care and education programs that are open and available to them and may be the best fit for their children. A growing number of initiatives around the country have shown that efforts to provide more transparent information to parents, coupled with a simplified and streamlined application process, can help promote access to high-quality programs.

For example, in New Orleans, simple text message reminders were effective at increasing the number of low-income parents who verified their income eligibility for Head Start. Providing information to parents about the quality of existing preschool options increased the number of low-income New Orleans parents who indicated a preference for a more highly rated program.

The immediate focus of states receiving emergency coronavirus funds will be to help early care and education providers remain financially solvent and to ensure that parents can access care. In doing so, states can continue to make strategic choices in allocating funds that streamline enrollment processes for families and enhance the quality of existing care. Focusing on equitable access to high-quality early care and education as part of the coronavirus relief effort can set up a foundation now for better care for all children in the future.

Meghan McCormick is a research associate and Sharon Huang is a senior associate in MDRC’s Family Well-Being and Children’s Development Policy Area.

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