Nebraska survey: State lacks quality, affordable early child education programs

(Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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March 29, 2016 - 6:45am

Only about one third of Nebraskans agree most of the young children in the state are prepared to be successful in school when they enter kindergarten. An even larger number do not believe high-quality early childhood education is available to Nebraska kids.


A summary of the Buffett Institute survey on Nebraska early childhood care and education.


Survey: What are the biggest challenges in connecting families with small children to high quality early childhood care and education. (Graphic Courtesy Buffett Institute)

Survey: How important is it for Nebraska to invest in each type of education available in the state.. (Graphic Courtesy Buffett Institute)



The harsh assessment of the availability of childhood care, especially for working parents, came to light in a study, Nebraskans Speak Out About Early Care and Education, written by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Over 7,000 state residents were surveyed by Gallup, Inc.

While concerned about the availability and quality of early childhood education, the report says the “vast majority” (68 percent of those surveyed) said early childhood education has a lot of impact on a student’s success later in school and in their daily lives.

Experts in child development point to a growing body of research supporting the notion that focused, quality education for children, from infants through age 8, can improve their reading comprehension, ability to study, and even their income as adults. According to the education advocacy group First Five, over 64,000 children in Nebraska are at risk of failing in school.

“Decades of research have demonstrated that what happens to children during the critically important early years impacts not only their future success, but also the future economic strength and well-being of our communities and our state,” said Samuel J. Meisels, the Buffett Institute’s executive director, in a statement released with the study.

He added Nebraskans “get it, they support it, and they want to see greater investment in early childhood programs across the state.”

While not specifying what additional funds could be sought or provided by government or school districts, the study showed broad support for making child care initiatives a higher priority in Nebraska. Early childhood education ranked second to public school K-12 funding and well ahead of support for the state’s university and state college system.

Ranked by preference, 77 percent said funding for Nebraska public schools was “very important, and 69 percent said the same of early childhood education, followed by technical training schools, community colleges. Of those surveyed, 44 percent said it was very important to fund four-year colleges.

In Nebraska, the largest source of funding used for early childhood education and care-taking is a U.S. government child care subsidy program. The Child Care and Development Fund helped provided over $34 million in services to nearly 19,900 Nebraska infants and toddlers in 2012, or about a third of infants and toddlers in the state.

Among the other findings of the report:

  • Six percent of those surveyed felt child care and early education was affordable.
  • Asked if “high-quality early care and education is available to every family in the state” only 11 percent said they strongly agreed.
  • Nearly 7 out of 10 Nebraskans surveyed believe the state “should make higher education a higher priority.”

Dr. Samuel Meisels, Buffett Institute (Courtesy Photo)

Bill Kelly of NET News spoke with Dr. Samuel Meisels, the executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.

Bill Kelly (NET News): It is probably not surprising there is a lot of support for quality early education for children, but only 10 percent say they feel children in Nebraska are, and I'm quoting here, “prepared to be successful in school when they start kindergarten.” Was the size of that number a surprise to you?

Dr. Samuel Meisels :  It was a surprise to us. There were quite a few numbers that were a surprise, but the fact that so many people felt that children are not ready for school when they turn age five is quite important, something we all need to pay attention to even though being ready for school means different things to different people.

Kelly:  I want to clarify what's meant in this context by “early childhood education.”

Dr. Meisels :  What we talk about in this is ‘early care and education’ and by that we're referring to all of the services and all of the programs that take place for children in the first eight years of their life, so this is from birth through the end of third grade.

Kelly:  Does that include the larger business-run daycare centers as well as the small house up the street that's doing daycare?

Dr. Meisels: In this case it includes everything, it includes home visitors from a program who are going into the home and working with families. It includes kindergarten, first, second grade. It includes childcare that is run by a commercial entity and also head start. It's a way of combining and thinking about all of the programs that affect children and families in those early years of life.

It also has one other meaning. Talking about care and education is a way of reminding us that we're interested not only in what children gain intellectually or cognitively, but also what the emotional and social experiences and the relationships that those children have with one another and with the adults in their environment…because that's crucial for childhood development.

Kelly:  Of the 7,000-plus people surveyed in the state, only 15 percent of Nebraskans were ‘very satisfied’ with the quality of the early care and education programs in their city or the area where they live. Do we know what's missing that they don't feel we're hitting that quality benchmark?

Dr. Meisels:  We didn't specifically ask that question, but it's actually more dramatic than that. One question we asked was do you believe that all children in Nebraska are receiving high-quality early care and education? In answer to that question, only one percent of respondents feel that all children are receiving high-quality early care and education. We didn't ask people what it is they felt was missing, so this is a perception that people have and that's very important.

Kelly:  Is there going to be a follow-up (survey) to try and find out what's missing?

Dr. Meisels:  We're going to follow-up, as we already are doing, by talking with providers of care. We are doing a survey, the first-ever survey of providers of care, through our entire age range of birth through third grade. That's taking place now, all across the state, and it is including all of those different venues…whether it's infant programs or preschool programs for profit, or non-profit programs in the community, all the way through third grade. We'll learn more about (where people believe there are shortcomings) that way.

Kelly:  The survey also asked people to name the biggest obstacle to obtaining quality daycare. They said too few providers were on the list of available providers, transportation and lack of, the hours of operation, but the largest block of people felt the cost of early education and daycare was the biggest obstacle, that it's too expensive.

Dr. Meisels:  Affordability is a big issue. You can spend as much on infant care as you might spend in the first year of college 18 years later when that child goes to a university. This is at a time when families are earning, probably, the least amount of money they will throughout their working careers. This is a really very significant problem and it does affect quality.

Actually there were three areas that were identified by the respondents that were of great concern. You mentioned them all, affordability is one, availability is a second and quality is a third. Availability has to do with whether or not someone's there and this especially affects us in rural parts of our state but it also affects us in urban parts where there simply aren't enough choices.

Kelly:  Most providers and school systems that offer these kind of programs are going to say ‘yes, the cost to families is expensive because it's expensive to provide these services.’ You aren't asking people to reduce how much it costs to provide daycare. What is the logical response to (those who say) it's too expensive?

Dr. Meisels:  We have to find other (funding) sources. Right now the vast majority of childcare is paid for by parents. It's on the backs of the families themselves. You don't pay for fourth grade unless you're in an independent school or in a religious school. You don't pay for second grade. You don't pay for eighth grade. But you pay for four-year-olds. You pay for infant care, and so forth. What we need to do is find a more equitable approach, one that does include parent pay but also includes some other sources that are public and perhaps some sources that are charitable over and above that. That was one of the questions we asked families: where would this money come from?

Kelly:  It's already viewed as expensive. We're paying daycare providers an average salary of around $18,000 a year, maybe $19,000 a year which is a really low salary in the scheme of things.

Dr. Meisels:  Very low, you can do better (with a job) in fast food. We're concentrating right now on the cost of this. (What) if we step back a moment and say ‘well it's so expensive should we do it at all?’ Then we run into very severe problems.

One problem is that, in Nebraska, we are one of the top 10 states in the nation in terms of all parents working, whether it's a single parent family or a two parent family, everyone's at work. We can't leave the child at home alone. Especially for children living in poverty, children who are coming from some sort of significant developmental challenge, this is not optional. This is something that children need. It's a lifeline for them and we will save money down the line. We lose money by not paying attention; by not supporting children now at the beginning of their lives.

Kelly:  Your organization, The Early Childhood Institute, by its very mission, was created to do research, to advocate on these issues. There are a lot of other organizations who agree with what's in this report, who would like to see something happen. Who takes the leadership role in taking this data and turning it into policy and turning it into action?

Dr. Meisels:  We are giving this data away so that as many organizations, as many individuals, as many agencies as possible will participate in this, including the Legislature, including the university and so forth. There's no individual, there's no one place where all these solutions lie. In fact just the opposite. The solutions to these problems will come from a joint effort on the part of many individuals and different parts of the state will have different resources, different needs and will have different ways of solving these problems. We certainly will be addressing these issues at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and we expect this will be something that will be addressed by many other organizations over the coming years.



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