WASHINGTON - More than 7,000 child-care centers in the United States meet tough quality standards, winning a coveted national seal of approval. But that represents less than 10 percent of the 110,000 U.S. centers.
The seal of approval is issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children to child-care providers who meet its accreditation standards. In addition to the 7,000 accredited centers, 8,000 more are in the process of trying to get accreditation.
Child-care centers with NAEYC accreditation are the top of the heap in the world of centers. They have low staff-child ratios; adequate salaries, benefits, and formal training for staffers; a child-centered physical environment that promotes learning, strong health, and safety standards; and supportive relationships with parents.
In Ohio, 281 of 5,000 centers are accredited, according to the NAEYC.
The situation is similar in the field of family-care providers who provide child care in their homes. Only a fraction of the nation's 1 million family-care providers have been accredited, although “demand for accreditation is strong'' among such providers, said Deborah Eaton, director of accreditation for the National Association for Family Child Care.
As the nation celebrates the 30th annual “Week of the Young Child'' this week, children's advocates are hoping to push the issue of accreditation by putting the national spotlight on the special importance of quality care in children's first years of life.
“There is a national awakening that a quality program means something important to a child's development,'' said Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign. “We now realize the importance of the first five years of life and the need for quality care.
“But it's important to keep in mind that everything that affects child-care quality - especially a qualified staff - affects price. It costs more to have a well-trained staff and that will drive the cost up to parents. ...
Experts acknowledge that some high quality child-care centers may have chosen not to go through the long, grueling, and often costly accreditation process, especially since accreditation must be renewed every three years.
But “accreditation is an external validation of a program's commitment to excellence,'' said Barbara Willer, the NAEYC's deputy executive director. “It's another layer of information and security for parents and the public.''
Deborah Ciecka, director of the Medical College of Ohio Early Learning Center in Toledo, knows how hard the accreditation process can be. Ms. Ciecka's program was first accredited in 1990, and its accreditation has been renewed three times since.
“It's a fairly rigorous process to go through. But once you've been through it, it starts to become the way you do business,'' Ms. Ciecka said. “It forces you to improve.''
One of the biggest obstacles to getting more child-care programs accredited is the cost, especially in light of the fact that families already pay the lion's share of costs of child care: 60 percent. Government picks up 39 percent of the cost, while the private sector kicks in 1 percent, according to a 1997 study titled “Financing Child Care in the United States.''
In contrast, families pay only 23 percent of the cost of a public college education, while state appropriations cover 42 percent of the cost. The rest of the cost is covered through federal and local appropriations, grants, contracts, and endowment income, the study showed.
“A year of tuition at San Diego State costs $2,500. A year of a quality early childhood program costs $6,000-$8,000,'' Ms. Eaton said. “But the choices parents make for care in a child's early years are the most important they will make. It's much more important than what high school or college they will attend.''
The experience of the federal government has shown that, with financial support and strict requirements, most child-care centers can win accreditation. More than 95 percent of child-care centers run by the U.S. military and 75 percent of centers run by the General Services Administration are accredited, Ms. Wohl noted.
Meeting the high standards required by NAEYC accreditation or the accreditation program of the National Association of Family Child Care can been prohibitively expensive for many child-care providers, however. The biggest cost often is hiring, training, and keeping qualified staff, experts said.