A new book, Private Enterprise and Public Education, offers a broad look at the influence, and reputation, of for-profits in education today. In doing so, it also puts forward a broad critique of what the authors see as overly simplistic condemnations of commercial providers and dubious government policies that exclude businesses from public schools and publicly funded programs.
But one of the book’s essays takes note of an obvious, if often overlooked exception to that norm: early-childhood programs, where for-profit providers have long been major players in the public market.
Many state and federal policies, in fact, allow parents to use public money to have their children attend for-profit centers, writes Todd Grindal, the author of that essay.
In what is admittedly a rough estimate, Grindal says his research suggests that about half of children under the age of 5 in the United States who regularly attend child care do so in non-public programs, meaning that commercial providers represent a much bigger share of the early-childhood sector than they do in either K-12 or higher education.
Annual revenues among for-profit child-care programs jumped from $2.8 billion in 1986 to $20 billion in 2008. Yet the industry, by and large, also remains one dominated by mom-and-pop operations, Grindal says. The 50 biggest, formal for-profit child-care organizations make up less than 10 percent of the overall center-based, for-profit sector, he writes.
So is the big for-profit presence in early-childhood education a good thing?
On the one hand, Grindal says that for-profit providers have been valuable in filling gaps where public sector providers don’t typically have as big a presence, such as for families with children 3 years old or younger. Private-sector companies—Grindal mentions Bright Horizons as one example—also have filled a gap by working out deals with major companies to provide employees with child care located next to offices and corporate headquarters.
At the same time, most available research—much of which is relatively dated—suggests that while quality varies greatly among commercial early-childhood providers, for-profits have tended to have lower performance than public and nonprofit entities on many measures of effectiveness, notes Grindal, who used to run a for-profit early-childhood center in Washington, D.C. He’s now an associate with Abt Associates, a research organization in Cambridge, Mass.
While those findings are a concern, Grindal, in an interview, also said that judging the effectivenes of early-childhood programs is often an imprecise enterprise. Parents may base their judgments about the quality of a program based on factors such as a facility’s cleanliness, safety, and staffing, while ignoring equally or more important measures of quality, like the interactions between the adult staff and children, and the quality of instruction.
The demand for early-childhood education today has been influenced by changes in government policy and by overall economic forces, which have encouraged both parents in households to work, Grindal explains. While public programs like Head Start provide child care for low-income families, demand for child care has far outpaced supply, leaving the door open to commercial providers.
In many communities, “the private sector was in there much earlier than the public sector,” Grindal said. “They got in the market before there was a large public presence.”
Grindal said he was cautious about attempting to apply lessons from the for-profit sectors’ experience in early-childhood programs to K-12 and higher education, where efforts to privatize various educational services are often met with scorn. (The intro to the book—edited by Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who is also an Ed Week blogger, and Michael B. Horn, of the Clayton Christensen Institute—says that for-profits “have long been regarded as an evil, if sometimes necessary, imposition on the public sector.”)
For Grindal, the quality of early-childhood programs, overall, is simply “not nearly good enough” to serve as a model for other parts of the educational system.
One of the best potential solutions for improving early-childhood education comes in efforts to develop and promote standards for performance. One example is the use of quality-rating systems, or quality-rating and improvement systems, which provide independent standards for early-childhood programs in areas such as personnel qualifications and licensing, by more than 25 states.
“Parents deserve better information to make their decisions,” he said, and “for-profits should regard [those standards] as an opportunity to distinguish themselves.”