Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A shift in child care policy philosophy

At the Forum's Viewpoint luncheon last week (available as a podcast or video), Wisconsin Secretary of Children and Families, Reggie Bicha, noted that the creation of his department in the last biennial budget was the result of a shift in philosophy regarding child care policy. Where the state once viewed child care as a mechanism to allow parents to work, it now seeks to ensure children in care are in good environments for growth and development. This shift is reflected in the fact that child care licensing and the child care subsidy program are now housed in the same state agency. Previously the child care subsidy program was housed in the Department of Workforce Development.

But Sec. Bicha wasn't the only speaker at the luncheon to talk of a shift in philosophy. Milwaukee's Chief of Police, Ed Flynn, spoke of the need to view social expenses not as costs, but as investments. While he acknowledged that governmental accounting procedures don't facilitate the recognition of the long-term returns of these annual costs, he emphasized that such returns have resulted in "counter-intuitive" messengers like himself coming forth to advocate for more investment in early learning.

Chief Flynn also asked for a shift in perspective when debating child care policy. He objected to treating child care as an industry, noting that market dynamics do not apply as expected--high quality care is too expensive for the costs to be born by the parents. The model, he argued, should be more like that of public education.

However, Tom Gazzana, Corporate Vice President, Children's Hospital, and Jose Vasquez, CEO of the Child Development Center of St. Joseph, each offered a differing opinion on that point. Mr. Gazzana noted that market forces could be interjected by tying the amount of the child care subsidy to the quality of care, with parents choosing high quality providers eligible for higher rates of subsidy. Mr. Valdez argued that if the community could come together and agree on what we expect from a high quality provider, a value could be assigned to it. He also stated his opinion that quality can be achieved in more cost-effective ways.

In response to Mr. Valdez, the final speaker, Deborah Blanks, CEO of the Social Development Commission, argued that waiting for the community to come to agreement on its own would take too long...policy needs to be proactive.

The lively discussion engaged the audience, which asked the panelists many provocative questions, including whether the city's business leaders have recognized the state's shift in philosophy by taking a position on the need for high quality early childhood education. Listen in to hear more.

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