Reducing Disparities in Early Care and Education and School Readiness

kids on carousal in playgroundA high proportion of Hispanic children are entering school without the school readiness skills they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. Compared to children of other races and ethnicities, Hispanic children at age four have the lowest vocabulary, literacy, and math skills, which are linked to deficits in later school achievement.

One way to secure children’s future academic achievement is to enroll them in high quality early care and education (ECE) programs. Recent research has documented positive outcomes for Hispanic children in center-based programs, and particularly pre-kindergarten. However, a recent report from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Disparate Access: Head Start and CCDBG Data by Race and Ethnicity, identifies racial disparities in the utilization of three ECE programs designed to provide affordable ECE to low-income families: Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care subsidies.

Participation in Center-Based Early Care and Education among Eligible Hispanic Families

CLASP researchers find that among income-eligible families between 2011-2013, only 38 percent of 3- and 4-year-old Hispanic children enrolled in Head Start, 5 percent of infant and toddlers enrolled in Early Head Start, and 8 percent of children between birth and age 13 used a child care subsidy. This report raises the question of how can we reduce racial disparities in the usage of Head Start and child care subsidy programs targeting low-income families?

Possible Reasons for Low Use of Head Start and Child Care Subsidies among Eligible Hispanic Families

The answer to this question is complicated by multiple factors. Perhaps the most important is that CLASP’s analysis does not take into account participation in other publicly-funded ECE options, including state-funded pre-k, Title 1 funded pre-k, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

In addition to the potential role of pre-k participation, the process that families use to choose an ECE program/provider for their child is complex and individualized. Research suggests that there are four external factors that may constrain families’ ECE choices: 1) availability of programs, 2) access to programs, 3) affordability of programs, and 4) awareness of options. In addition to these, choosing an ECE provider is a personal decision that reflects the needs and preferences of family members.

Publicly funded programs, such as child care subsidies, Head Start, and state pre-k programs, are designed to alleviate the constraints of affordability and limited availability. However, they do not necessarily address accessibility issues (such as needing evening, night, or weekend care,  access via public transportation, or care that is responsive to the linguistic needs of the family), nor are all families aware of their eligibility. Both accessibility and awareness are issues that may uniquely affect Hispanic families. Research finds a high proportion of Hispanic families work non-traditional hours (e.g., evenings, nights, and weekends), times when high quality ECE is hard to find. Research also finds that immigrants and refugees, in particular, have limited awareness of their eligibility for free or subsidized ECE arrangements, such as Head Start.

Improving Access to Head Start and Child Care Subsidies

Federal and state officials are taking steps to improve families’ access to and awareness of Head Start and child care subsidies. Some states have innovatively combined pre-k, Head Start and/or child care funds to make ECE more accessible to low-income families. For example, half-day Head Start and half-day pre-kindergarten and/or subsidized child care are provided in some states so that children can benefit from a full-day of ECE programming without requiring transportation in the middle of the day.

Likewise, federal guidance was recently released to make subsidized child care more accessible to eligible families. This guidance establishes a 12-month eligibility for child care subsidies, which benefits families with seasonal employment or those in the service industry whose pay can be inconsistent from month to month.

Improving Awareness

To increase parents’ awareness of their eligibility for child care subsidies, the recent CCDBG authorization requires states to provide consumer education to families on the availability of child care assistance and other programs for which families may qualify. It also states that front-line workers should be cross-trained to inform parents who are applying for TANF of their eligibility for child care subsidies.

What More Can Be Done?

The federal government and individual states are all taking steps to reduce racial disparities in the utilization of publicly funded ECE programs accomplish. Here are a few additional steps that community leaders, advocates, and researchers can take:

  • Document racial disparities in ECE availability and utilization on a local level. Identifying which at-risk neighborhoods do not have access to ECE options can provide useful information about where new programs could be opened. Likewise, this information can be helpful for child care subsidy administrators, who may be able to channel set-aside dollars to increase access to culturally and linguistically responsive, high-quality care in those areas.
  • Increase the recruitment and training of a culturally and linguistically diverse ECE workforce to match the changing demographics in communities, especially communities with high concentrations of culturally and linguistically diverse, low-income families.
  • Help create effective parent education targeting Hispanic parents about the potential benefits of ECE for their children’s future academic success, as well as the eligibility criteria for publicly funded and subsidized ECE programs.
  • Strengthen collaborative partnerships and decrease families’ fears by facilitating relationships between organizations that are respected in the community (e.g., churches and community centers) and local departments of social services and legal aid programs. Doing so may help alleviate concerns that eligible families have about applying for assistance (e.g., fear of deportation).
  • Contribute to the body of knowledge about Hispanic families’ use of pre-k, Head Start/Early Head Start, and child care subsidy programs, as well as barriers and facilitators to participation in these programs.

Nicole Forry, Ph.D., and Michael López, Ph.D.

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