Early care and education system underserving kids in Arizona, report says

Dec 5, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 9:43 am

The Children’s Equity Project Executive Director Dr. Shantel Meek talks before a crowd. (​Balin...

The Children’s Equity Project Executive Director Dr. Shantel Meek talks before a crowd. (​Balin Overstolz-McNair/KTAR)

(​Balin Overstolz-McNair/KTAR)

PHOENIX — A new report has found Arizona’s early care and education (ECE) system is underserving kids, especially those from marginalized communities.

The Children’s Equity Project is a research group within Arizona State University that looks at several areas, including child welfare and special education.

The report, titled “Start with Equity: Increasing Access, Improving Quality, and Advancing Equity in Arizona’s Early Care and Learning Systems,” looked at a variety of elements in the state’s ECE system.

Dr. Shantel Meek, executive director of The Children’s Equity Project, said Arizona itself does not put enough funding into ECE.

“This has been against the backdrop of the rest of the country and lots of other states who have increased their investments in early education, across the board,” Meek said.

Arizona contributed 7% of total ECE funding in the state whereas the other 93% came from federal funds and emergency COVID-19 relief funds in 2022, according to the report.

Additionally, the report found that state spending was $3,993 per pre-K child in 2021, which is about half the national average of $7,011.

Meek says this contributes to a two-fold problem: It remains expensive for parents to afford care and, when they can, it’s not always the best.

In Arizona, ECE facilities like day cares or pre-schools that service more than five kids are licensed by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Meek says the licensing requirements are too soft in Arizona.

“That’s kind of the baseline, the entry point into the system,” Meek said. “You at least have to meet this baseline in order to provide services for kids and families. Our baseline is too low.”

There’s several areas Meek says AZDHS should be stricter with its licensing requirements. That includes testing water for lead, general swimming safety and discipline.

But it’s the teacher to student ratio that she says is the most concerning. The average ratio of kids to workers in centers licensed by AZDHS is eight-to-one. That means there can be more than eight kids for one staff member to watch, take care of and, possibly, educate.

“In Arizona, you can have up to five infants, so babies, for one adult,” Meek said. “Eight toddlers for one adult, or 13 preschoolers for one adult. All of those are out of step with nationally recognized best standard.”

Over-burdened workers in ECE centers are not always able to address the needs of every child. It can also shape how children perceive their relationships with adults and have long-term consequences on development.

“This issue of licensing and ratio is a really major issue just because it cuts to the core of how children develop and what they need to develop,” Meek said.

The workforce, already at times dealing with an excess number of children, does so while receiving relatively little pay.

“During the pandemic, nearly 70% of Arizona’s child care providers reported an ongoing shortage of qualified workers due in large part to the inability to pay competitive wages,” according to the report.

The Children’s Equity Project also noted the average pay for ECE workers is $14.54 per hour.

“[They] are making, in many cases, wages that are very close to the poverty level and makes them eligible for public benefits,” Meek said. “It’s almost like we’re subsidizing the care through these other public benefits because of the low wages.”

She also explains this issue is connected with the issues previously described. If ECE centers can’t keep staff due to low pay, then quality drops as those ratios worsen.

Research shows that when kids get an early start in education, they tend to have better long-term outcomes in life. That can range from physical health, to economic to much more.

“I think it’s important and it’s critical to really emphasize that those outcomes are the result of really high-quality early care and education,” Meek said. “Certainly with ratios that are better than eight-to-one.”

The report also finds many of the shortcomings it described disproportionally impact students of color, children with disabilities and other marginalized groups.

This ultimately means Arizona’s baseline standard for care does not give children the best long-term outcomes that researchers believe are possible. It also creates an unequal landscape where some parents can access centers with high quality, whereas others will not have that option.

“One kid could walk into a program in Scottsdale and have a very different experience from a kid who walks into a program in central Phoenix or anywhere else,” Meek said.

Several things were also outlined in the report regarding what Arizona lawmakers and agencies can do to uplift the state’s early care and education system.

In the meantime, Meek urged those lawmakers and leaders to take a close look at the state’s ECE facilities and the opportunities they provide to families.

She specifically urged Gov. Katie Hobbs to rally on this issue and to make sure the system isn’t leaving anyone out.

“Ensuring that the expectation for early current education, across all of our policies, across all of our trainings, across all of our standards, is aligned and includes a vision that has children with disabilities, dual language Learners, children of color children, all of the children in the state are reflected in those,” Meek said. “Right now that’s not the case.”

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Early care and education system underserving kids in Arizona, report says