Creating Equity of Opportunity Through Early Learning Policies
It is up to advocates to make sure that early childhood policy is informed not just by research, but by demographics and a sense of equity.
September, the month when we observed the importance of Hispanic Heritage, also saw a breakthrough in early care and learning policy. House and Senate early education leaders forged a bipartisan deal on the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The confluence of these two events started us thinking: Young children of Hispanic heritage are forming an increasingly large proportion of the infant-toddler population. Their importance to the U.S. now and as future workers gives us a useful lens for examining the child care bill (S. 1086). More opportunities for high-quality early care and learning experiences for this growing population could significantly influence the ability of young Latino children to reach their potential and contribute to our economy in the future. So shaping and implementing early learning policy could be a good way to create equity of opportunity.
Young Latinos are accounting for an increasing share of the overall child population—24% now and projected to increase to almost 36% by 2050. About a quarter of all infants and toddlers are Latino, and there are more than 5,000,000 Latino children under age 6—the primary customers for CCDBG. Many are considered at risk. About a third of these children live in poverty (although this rate has dropped from 38% as more Latino parents are able to find work). Latino parents are most likely to express concerns about risk factors for developmental problems in their infants and toddlers.
What this adds up to is a lot of parents who want the best opportunities for their children—and children who need early care and learning services that are not only high quality, but also culturally attuned and linguistically appropriate for dual language learners. Nationally, one in five children receiving federal child care services is Latino. But in 11 states, more than one in four children receiving subsidies is Latino, with Texas and Arizona hovering just under 50% and California and New Mexico surpassing 60%.
Given this lens, how does the new child care bill (expected to be passed by the Senate after the election) address the diversity of young children in America and what aspects should we keep an eye on? Overall, the bill pays some attention to the diversity of children and parents, but not the workforce providing child care.
Three areas jump out as having implications for Latino families and providers: consumer information to parents; annual inspections of licensed providers and at some point, of license-exempt providers; and training and professional development systems for providers.
Information for Parents and Providers: States will be required to make available a range of information for the consumers of care, i.e., parents. Some information is about providers, including the diversity of settings available, the quality of individual providers (if available in the state), and the requirements for licensing and background checks. The state must also make available information about research and best practices in early childhood development and policies to address “the social-emotional behavioral health” as well as expulsion of children from early childhood programs. Finally, the state must provide information on the availability of developmental screenings and how families or providers can access services. Some of these areas need careful explanations. For example, the idea of developmental screenings can make parents anxious, so information about how they help identify areas in which children need developmental support is important for accessing screenings and, even more important, following through with referrals.
It is critical that all of this information be available in forms that are accessible to Spanish-speaking parents and providers. To be sure, the list of activities for which the quality set-aside may be used includes providing training and outreach for engaging parents and families in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. States should allocate some of their quality funds for this purpose—and for reaching diverse providers as well.
Inspections and Monitoring: Within two years, states will have to conduct pre-licensure and annual inspections of licensed child care providers. At some point (the bill leaves it to the state), they also will have to annually inspect license-exempt providers for compliance with fire, health, and safety requirements. While there are requirements that inspectors are qualified to assess compliance with regulations, there is no suggestion that they either reflect the diversity of providers or have any type of cultural competence to interact with providers of diverse racial or ethnic background. Now, it is true that the early childhood workforce is not as diverse as the children for whom they care, but diversity is increasing. Nationally, a little less than 20% of early childhood workers are Hispanic. But many more may be providing family, friend and neighbor care. In fact, Hispanic children are much more likely to be in informal relative care and much less likely to be in center-based programs. So in some states, cultural and linguistic attunement of inspectors could be a significant need.
Training and Professional Development: One of the most encouraging parts of the bill would require states to have training and professional development systems. These systems must provide for a progression of professional development that reflects research and best practices related to the skills necessary to promote the positive development of young children and helps improve the quality and stability within the workforce. The training and professional development is supposed to be, to the extent practicable, appropriate for a population of children that includes (among others) English learners (who are inherently dual-language learners). But there is no requirement that training be linguistically and culturally appropriate for a diverse group of providers or that they receive training that is conducive to cultural competence.
After enactment, any implementing regulations or other guidance should recognize that the adult population connected to children receiving child care services is also diverse. In shaping their own policies, states—especially those with many Latino children as well as children from other racial or ethnic backgrounds receiving subsidies—should be mindful of both the diversity of the current workforce and the need to encourage more providers who reflect the diversity of the children served to enter the field. It will be up to advocates in the states to make sure that early childhood policy is informed not just by research, but by demographics and a sense of equity.
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We most certainly know what we can and should do for babies—and it’s time to get started.