The Day-care 'Trilemma' It's A Crucial Problem In Making Sure That American Kids Are, In Fact, 'ready To Learn'

Posted: March 09, 1992

Linda Burns is no virtuoso, but she's pretty good at juggling. She's been perfecting it for six years as director of a nonprofit day-care facility called Beacon Center for Children in Philadelphia.

Her act goes something like this: Keep the fees parents pay down, but don't let them drop so low that pay for her staff declines to the point that turnover becomes a major problem or so many quit that the quality of care for the children declines to an unacceptable level.

In the child-care field this balance of affordability, decent salaries and quality care is called the "trilemma." And child-care providers want parents, employers, the public in general - and lawmakers in particular - to understand what they're up against. To get that message across, they will be holding rallies next month in Philadelphia and other cities across the country.

The problem is not new, but people in the child-care field think the message hasn't sunk in. They don't think most Americans realize just how low the pay is - about $5.50 an hour even for workers who have some special training in early childhood learning as well as a high school diploma. College graduates can pull down all of $6.50 an hour, a wage that simply isn't competitive. Moreover, less than half the jobs in child-care centers offer health and pension benefits. Indeed, just about the only thing that keeps the workers, mostly women, in the field is their love for the work and their belief that it's important.

And it is. Study after study has demonstrated the importance of early childhood development - the skills that have to be learned before a child goes off to kindergarten at age 5. The Bush administration has as one of its supposed goals the concept that every child should come to school "ready to learn," and adequate preschooling certainly should be part of that. While much attention is being focused on the poor achievement of older children, the quality of care preschoolers get is often forgotten - and yet that may be right where the trouble starts.

Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children, is part of the answer - but only part. Even if funding for this program is increased dramatically to include all eligible children, that won't change things for most children in day care since even parents who are among the working poor earn too much to be eligible.

Day-care providers recognize that most parents are already paying all they can, and they are hoping to get significant additional assistance from employers, as well as from state and federal governments. They want employers to provide, or help pay for, child-care as a regular benefit. Government aid at present, in the form of tax credits and direct payments for very low-income parents, doesn't provide enough money to enable day-care providers to pay higher salaries. To do that, the child-care providers feel they need direct government subsidies, which could be tied to requirements that child care workers have additional training.

Marnie Sweet, a local spokeswoman for the movement, doesn't pretend that child-care advocates have a complete answer for this complex problem. (One question: How to make sure that additional aid goes to salaries and not into the profit column of people who operate child-care centers?) The immediate goal, she says, is not to push any specific program, but simply to get people to recognize that the problem exists - and to realize that the question is just how much this nation really cares about its children.

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