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A public pre-K expansion doesn’t have to box out private care

Toddlers in a day care, sitting in high chairs eating fruit.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Preschoolers eat lunch at a day care center in Mountlake Terrace, Wash.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” 

The famous saying, adapted from the work of Scottish poet Robert Burns, reminds us that even our most thoughtful and well-intentioned efforts can sometimes yield unexpected results. The expansion of public pre-kindergarten is an excellent case in point.  

High-quality preschool programs have been shown to reap benefits to both students and taxpayers that can span across decades — which is why both Congress and a number of state legislatures are actively exploring their expansion. But the devil is always in the details. Expanded exclusively in public school districts, pre-kindergarten has the potential to decimate the nation’s child care market, inadvertently depriving working families of access to infant and toddler care. 

The key to avoiding this disruption is “mixed delivery” — which simply means that services are provided not only by K-12 school systems but also by the private, faith- and community-based preschool providers who have traditionally serviced the preschool market. 

The issue boils down to the economics of child care. Within the current market structure, it is virtually impossible for providers to break even on the provision of infant-toddler care, which requires ratios as low as one adult to every four children. As a result, child care businesses rely heavily on the presence of older preschoolers — who can be served in larger groups — to balance their books. 

Put simply, older preschoolers are the lifeblood of the preschool market. This is why the expansion of publicly-funding pre-kindergarten, done incorrectly, poses an existential threat to the industry. The good news, however, is that there are ways around this; opportunities to ensure strong outcomes for preschoolers and the stability of our early childhood ecosystem. Most states now offer state-funded pre-K and well over half do so through mixed-delivery models that capitalize on the expertise and existing infrastructure of private sector providers. 

The benefits of mixed delivery accrue not only to child care providers but to children and families as well. In private sector classrooms, which are more likely to mirror parents’ work obligations, children can access extended-day and year-round services — resulting in greater continuity of care. Children are able to develop close, meaningful relationships with their caregivers, benefiting both their social-emotional development and resilience. Mixed-delivery systems also provide families with choice, ensuring they can choose the programs that best match their needs and desires.

The precedent for mixed delivery is well established. Georgia currently serves more than 80,000 four-year-old children through a blend of federal, state and local funding (with revenues from the Georgia Lottery for Education primarily funding the program). North Carolina’s pre-K program focuses on at-risk four-year-old children with 48 percent of slots in public schools, 38 percent in center-based child care, and 14 percent in Head Start programs. And at least 50 percent of West Virginia’s Universal pre-K Program must be delivered by community-based programs, including Head Start and licensed child care settings. 

Successful mixed-delivery pre-K programs require strong, collaborative partnerships between public and private sector providers. And increasingly, states are looking at strategies to align learning experiences, enrich services and family supports and build unified early education systems that benefit all children equitably, regardless of the location in which they receive services.

Finally, it’s critical that pre-K not be framed as a competition between public schools and the private sector, but instead, as an opportunity for school districts to embrace and partner with the broad array of providers from which they draw their students. The success of these private-sector programs is ultimately the success of our public school districts.

Expanded pre-kindergarten will be a benefit to countless American children. But when enacting public policy, we can’t allow it to be done in isolation, or without taking heed of its potential impacts on the broader ecosystem supporting young children and their families. Capitalizing on the strengths of both the public and private sectors, mixed delivery is just smart policy.  

Javaid Siddiqi, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Hunt Institute. 

Tags Education in the United States pre kindergarten Robert Burns universal pre k

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