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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Child Care and PreK Can Work Together, MU Expert Says

Separate systems not best way to support working parents and prepare young children for school

March 10th, 2014

Story Contact: Jesslyn Chew,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

By Diamond Dixon

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The lack of a national policy that combines child care and early education is felt by millions of U.S. families every day. The majority of parents with children younger than six are employed and need child care that supports their employment and prepares their children for school. For decades, the United States has maintained two separate systems to address these needs: child care for working parents and early education for children from low-income families. Because the systems mostly are separate and regulations vary widely between the two, all families do not have access to quality, affordable and convenient services. Now, a University of Missouri child development expert says child care and early education should be integrated into a single, national approach that will support parents’ employment and prepare children for kindergarten.

“The early education system, which includes Head Start and many state prekindergarten (preK) programs, provides free, high-quality programs to children from low-income households who are at-risk. These programs typically operate for a portion of the day, which forces working parents to find additional child care arrangements,” said Sara Gable, an associate professor in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences. The other part of the system exists to support working parents’ day care needs. This system is far more extensive, differs widely from state to state, and is funded mostly by fees that parents pay. For low-income households, the government pays a portion of child care expenses and for higher-earning households, tax credits are available.”

Although Gable finds recent national attention to preK encouraging, she is concerned that the conversation addresses only a small part of families’ needs.

“The federal government’s willingness to keep child care and early education separate has created an alarmingly uneven system of services for families,” Gable said. “This separation is further complicated by the fact that states differ in how they organize and regulate child care and preK programs. Parents cannot always be sure about the quality of care and education their children are receiving. In addition, children’s needs, from when they are babies until when they start kindergarten, do not seem to be a priority to policymakers.”

Gable says a unified, national approach to child care and early education could better support all families.

“Imagine if the U.S. had a single approach to child care and early education,” Gable said. “All families would have access to affordable, quality programs that supported parents’ employment and prepared children for school. We must figure out a way to draft regulations the federal government can uphold rather than having different regulations for each state. Why can’t requirements for teachers and caregivers look the same across the states? We are all serving the same children, and we need to ensure all children are receiving quality care and education.”

Gable’s book, The States of Child Care: Building a Better System, was released earlier this year.  Gable is an associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, which is jointly administered by the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, the College of Human Environmental Sciences and the School of Medicine.