The report found that only 13 percent of child-care programs in Delaware County are considered high quality; 15 percent in Chester County; 18 percent in Bucks County; and 20 percent in Montgomery County.
Very few children attend high-quality private programs - 4 percent in Delaware and Bucks, 6.5 percent in Chester, and 7 percent in Montgomery.
Even harder to come by are high-quality subsidized programs such as Pre-K Counts and Head Start for 3- and 4-year olds. In Chester County, for instance, there are 68 slots for 4,372 eligible Pre-K Counts students; in Delaware County, 326 spots for 7,193 students.
The report, which used data from the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning, jointly run by the Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Education, said that state budget cuts have caused the waiting list for subsidized child care to grow.
All four counties consistently had among the longest wait times - six or seven months - in the state.
Public investments in programs for infants and toddlers are even more limited. Only Montgomery County offered Early Head Start - 110 slots for 1,765 eligible youngsters.
With a median cost of $22,000 to $24,000 for a family with two children - an infant and preschooler - child care is out of reach for a typical family, the report said.
Even in affluent Montgomery County, families must often choose a more affordable program over a high-quality one, the report said.
Children who spend time in high-quality child care have lasting benefits, including better math, language, and social skills as they enter school, and require less special education, according to education experts. They also progress further in school, have fewer interactions with the justice system, and earn more money as adults.
"There's a vast difference between babysitting and high-quality early learning opportunities," Towey said.
Currently, 16,000 Bucks County students are not working at grade level, she said. Poor children typically enter school an average of 18 months behind other students.
"That's a gap that can close with early childhood education," she said.