Here they come, toddling down the hall at Starfish Family Services in Inkster, looking around, squealing and talking, one or two words at a time: Abraham, Vincentson, Howard, Sophia, Mohammed, Vincent, Giovanna and Uriah.
They range in age from 17 months to almost 3. They are charming and cute, and while they don’t know it, they belong to an elite group of Michigan residents: at-risk youngsters who enjoy high-quality child care – art, reading, play, snacks and naps – all for free.
State-supported child care has a long history of helping struggling children and parents. But while nearly 20,000 low-income children receive this care in Michigan, 89,000 poor children, from newborns to age 3, do not.
A growing body of research shows high-quality child care can lead to positive long-term outcomes for children, according to a recent report on state policy options for children from birth to 3 years old by the Citizens Research Council and Public Sector Consultants, two Lansing-based research organizations
For example, a study of pre-kindergarten programs in 11 states, published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly in 2008, found that higher-quality childcare from birth to age 4 ½ was associated with improved cognitive-academic achievement at age 15. The impact increased along with the quality of these programs, the study found.
While 64 percent of Michigan children under 6 are in the care of someone other than a family member on a daily basis, the CRC-PSC report noted that state spending on child care services for low-income families has plummeted over the last seven years.
In fiscal year 2007, total payments for child-care services was just below $416 million and covered an average of 106,062 children of all ages each month. In fiscal year 2013, the study said, spending had dropped to $135 million, a 67 percent decline from 2007, and the average monthly number of children served dropped to 43,246.
When looking specifically at the youngest age groups, just over 19,000 children, from newborns to age 3, received a state child-care subsidy as of April 2014, according to state data cited in the CRC-PSC report. Yet there are an estimated 108,000 Michigan children in this age group who meet the federal definition of poverty ‒ leaving 89,000 low-income children without financial assistance. .
Reasons for the decrease in state child-care support, according to the study, include shrinkage of jobs during the Great Recession and an audit by the Office of the Auditor General in July 2008, during the Granholm administration, that resulted in tightened procedures that likely reduced participation, especially in unlicensed child care. The state also reduced the number of hours of childcare that can be reimbursed to parents during a two-week period from 100 to 80. (Under Gov. Snyder, the number of reimbursable hours has climbed to 90.)
In a September report critical of Michigan’s child-care policies, the Michigan League for Public Policy said low reimbursement rates for subsidized child care has forced many low-income families to seek out unlicensed care of unknown quality.
Susan Broman, the deputy superintendent for the Department of Education’s Office of Great Start, which consolidates early childhood programs and resources, said another reason for the dropoff is a reduction in the number of people receiving cash assistance from the state Department of Human Services. Many people access child-care subsidies along with DHS assistance.
“There’s a relationship between the two,” she said.
What does high-quality child care for vulnerable families look like?
Starfish Family Services is a 52-year-old nonprofit agency that offers early childhood and parenting programs for low-income families in western Wayne County and Detroit. It’s child-care program for 2 year olds is part of the federal Early Head Start program, and Starfish, as an organization, has received the state’s highest ranking.
Two teachers and a volunteer preside over the eight-child classroom, which is airy, bright, clean and filled with artwork, toys, books, stuffed animals, tables, chairs, sand buckets, a small playscape, kitchenette, diaper-changing table and bathroom.
“Five more minutes,” April Sawyer, one of the teachers, tells the children while they are playing during free time. “And then we’re going to clean up and do our art project. Five more minutes.”
At Starfish, which receives funding from state, federal and private sources, the child-care program serves 52 children up to age 3 in Early Head Start, and another 685 in Head Start for ages 3 to 5. The program allow parents the freedom to work, look for work or pursue education that will help them find work.
“It’s not just for children, but it’s also to give parents a head start, too,” said Noreen Dinwieddie, director of Starfish Early Head Start and Head Start.
“We’re helping them with their education, helping them get a job, and learning those child development skills that they maybe didn’t know.”
Facilities such as Starfish are rated by the Michigan Department of Education through its Great Start to Quality program, which is designed to help parents find the best childcare and preschool for their children. The standards set by Great Start to Quality go beyond the state’s minimum registration procedures or licensing requirements for child-care centers.
Child-care organizations are reviewed on such facets as staff qualifications; its partnerships with families and the community, its curriculum and management practices and the environment the child-care center provides. Providers who receive three stars and up get additional funding from the state. “Hopefully it’s driving more parents to seek out that level of quality,” Broman said.
Starfish’s program received a top rating of five stars in its most recent assessment.
Dinweiddie said the staff’s interaction with the children helps the kids develop social skills. But students are not the only ones who benefit.
“We also provide social services for parents, for referrals and resources. We provide health and nutrition” – Starfish has an RN on the staff, Dorothy Roman -- “and we teach parents to verbalize what their needs are.”
Such high-quality services come at a cost.
The CRC-PSC study put a price tag on improved child care for low-income families. Take, for example, the cost of raising reimbursement rates for families.
If Michigan raised its reimbursement rates to the federal level, it would cost the state another $73 million annually for young children up to 3. If the state applied these higher rates to number of the children covered back in 2005, the cost would rise to $400 million.
In addition to increasing reimbursement, the CRC-PSC report also says the state would need to spend money to raise the public profile of the Great Start to Quality website to ensure more at-risk families know about web resources that can help them choose quality child care.
Inside the classroom
April Sawyer, 27, and Chris Kruck, 43, run the Starfish room for 2 year olds. The agenda includes small- and large-group play, gym, breakfast, lunch, snacks and nap, and the curriculum is tailored to children’s developing minds.
“What we do is base everything off the children’s interests the previous day,” said Sawyer, who spent a considerable time discussing her dog, Franklin, with the children. “So if they’re interested in dogs – we talk a lot about dogs – then we incorporate a lot of that into what we are doing, because that’s what they’re interested in.
“So we’re not planning a whole theme around dinosaurs – unless that’s what they’re interested in. Then we’ll do dinosaurs, but if they’re not, then we’ll change it up and move to something else to make sure they getting as much attention in the areas that they want, and need, that we can do.”
During the first 90 minutes of the day, another adult was present in the classroom. She was Lindsay LaBoda, Starfish’s mental health expert, who observed a student whose halting efforts to talk had caught the attention of the staff.
“She comes in to observe when we have a concern about the children, so nothing is neglected,” Sawyer said. “We were concerned with speech in a child. She came in to see if it was an actual concern, if it is a delay enough to involve an outside agency to come in and have speech therapy.”
Said Dinwieddie: “If they have a disability, if it’s autism, learning deficits, if it’s any developmental issue, if we catch it now, it’s giving them that head start, so when they go into the public schools or wherever, they’ve already begun to get those services that they require, so they can feel and be successful.”
The children acted calmly for their age, and lunch time seemed remarkably tranquil, as everyone sat quietly, eating and talking to the teachers. Every so often, there were random outbursts of exuberance and a couple incidents of angry words over sharing that Sawyer and Kruck handled firmly but gently.
The Citizens Research Council and Public Sector Consultants report notes the average weekly cost of child care for families with an employed mother has risen by 70 percent between 1985 and 2011, even after adjusting for inflation. For families with young children, the average cost for child care is about $9,300 a year. Some state funding is available for eligible families to help offset the costs, and they can pick their own child-care provider.
Child-care affordability is becoming increasingly on the radar of lawmakers nationally as both major political parties address the financial strains facing middle- and low-income families.
In his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama endorsed high-quality, affordable child care and proposed nearly tripling the maximum child care tax credit to $3,000, saying, “It’s not a nice-to-have – it’s a must-have. It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”
He also called for an $80 billion expansion of the federal program that provides child-care subsidies to low- and middle-income families with children 3 and under.
In his new budget, Gov. Rick Snyder also addressed child care when he called for using $23.6 million in federal funds to extend eligibility for all low-income children and increase subsidies to parents for higher quality programs.
What high quality looks like
Parents at Starfish say they know a high-quality child-care center when they see it.
Nahid Shalhout, 32, has a son at the center, 17-month-old Omran Hamad.
“Thanks to Noah being here, I can get my college education. He seems to love it here. The teachers are always making sure he meets his developmental goals.” ‒ Starfish parent Angela Sturm, 29.
“My child used to go to private daycare, and usually in private daycare they don’t provide what they provide here,” she said. “Here they try to teach the child. You feel like it’s not a daycare. It’s more of a learning center. They try to teach your child from the morning he comes in to how to eat, how to talk, the way to behave with other children. It’s a very good experience.”
Angela Sturm, a single mom, has had three children at Starfish, including 7-month-old Noah Fisher.
“Thanks to Noah being here, I can get my college education,” Sturm, 29, said. “He seems to love it here. The teachers are always making sure he meets his developmental goals, and they talk with me if there is ever an issue.”
Sturm said her son would never get this attention in a typical day care. “They would just throw him into a room,” she said.
After lunch in the classroom it is nap time. Little cots come out, and soothing background music starts to play. The teachers massage some little backs to help the children drift off, and they adjust the blankets that some children have pulled over their heads before falling asleep. Before too long, all is quiet.