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

May 2, 2022

The Hill Op-Ed

By Javaid Siddiqi, President & CEO of The Hunt Institute

Read article online here.

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.

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

Follow Javaid on Twitter

Share This