Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Are Tuition Rates Too Low to Fund Quality?

Traditionally, child rearing has been viewed as a personal responsibility, and, as such, funding for Early Learning programs has come from parents through tuition with some subsidies for low-income families from the government and foundations. Since many families have limited resources, tuition has been seen as needing to stay low relative to the actual costs of running a high quality program.  Focusing on keeping tuition affordable has been a reasonable effort considering the little support that ECE receives from the larger society, and the amount that tuition can take from the average families budget.  This amount can range between 7 and 29 percent depending on the parents level of income.  This makes the choices parents make when choosing child care difficult, and leads many to choose to low quality, unlicensed care.

In response. many Early Learning programs do not raise tuition (sometimes for years) to keep parents from leaving for low cost alternatives. Unfortunately, the impact of low tuition has often been at the expense of quality, including recruiting and retaining well-educated staff.  When programs cannot afford to pay staff a living wage, not to mention a professional wage, staff are less committed to their profession, have less education, and are more likely to leave from something with better pay.

In addition, low tuition impacts a program's ability to purchase materials to promote learning, replace materials that have become broken, hire support staff, or promote teacher's professional development.  Director's end up spending their time cleaning, cooking, or working in the classroom which leaves them unable to prepare for staff meetings or in-services, develop a strategic plan, apply for grants, mentor staff, or recruit volunteers.   
All of these consequences negatively impact the quality of care that children receive by minimizing the use and understanding of best practices, reducing teacher's ability to be responsive to children's needs, preventing children from forming strong relationships with their teachers, and the lack of  support from other professionals to foster the entire child's development.  Director's often report feeling that they cannot keep up- let alone make gains to improve quality.  It is a situation comparable to Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down once he reached the top.

Even when directors understand the impact of inadequate tuition, they and their programs choose to keep it below the cost of quality in an effort to meet parent's needs and to keep parents as partners.  However, parents need a high quality, stable, educational environment for their child and that can only be sustained with adequate funding. 

As Tony Robbins said "By changing nothing, nothing changes" and funding will not increase unless ECE professionals demand it.  It is time for Early Learning programs to charge the true costs of quality care as all other industries do.  It will be a difficult conversation to have with parents, but it is up to ECE professionals to help parents understand the costs involved, how it benefits their children, and to engage their support in working towards a system that funds quality. 

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