Controversy in K-12 Aside, For-Profits Are Big Players in Nation’s Preschools

Senior Editor

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.”

4 thoughts on “Controversy in K-12 Aside, For-Profits Are Big Players in Nation’s Preschools

  1. "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."

    Non-public includes nonprofit, so it’s not clear if his research really refers to for-profits or just private childcare providers.

    The reason nonprofits exist is exactly for situation such as early care, where the person being served cannot evaluate the quality of the service or cannot communicate that information to others. Nonprofit and public service provision is designed to minimize incentives to skim in the interest of profits.

    That push to produce profits vs. quality is why nonprofit child care providers (and hospitals) are generally found to be of higher quality than for-profits.

    The indiscriminate blurring of boundaries between sectors, with no regard for the differences that make one sector more appropriate for a given situation, is dangerous.

  2. Many parents look at early care and learning, initially, from the perspective of finding a "day care" provider that is safe and convenient to where they live or work.

    Private, for-profit providers like Corporate Family Solutions and Bright Horizons brought access to safe, convenient day care to scale by partnering with large corporations to share space. This is a great accomplishment.

    Community-based organizations have brought access to Head Start and other early care and learning programs to neighborhoods that corporate providers might find less appealing, but where the need is arguably greater. These are great accomplishments, too.

    Different governance and finance models are needed to adapt to the myriad circumstances of communities.

    What we need to focus on, with a laser-like level of concentration, is "What are the specific outcomes we want to see in early care and learning programs that are likely to ensure that children enter school ready to thrive and are on track to succeed on third grade English language arts and math assessments?"

    Expanding access to quality early care and learning programs, that result in all students performing at high standards will require a diverse, well-resourced delivery system of public, non-profit and for-profit providers.

    Regardless of the provider’s operating structure, effective programs require teachers who are well-prepared and well-resourced, good content, ongoing training and professional development; and valid and reliable measures of progress and outcomes.

    If we can get agreement on those important outcomes, adjust federal and state policy accordingly; while improving and simplifying funding and quality measurement systems to support those outcomes–then whether the provider is for-profit, non-profit or public will be much less important.

  3. Big surprise, if you don’t spend the money on kids and instead line the coffers of execs 401k plans and corporate profit margins, kids lose! "for-profits have tended to have lower performance than public and nonprofit entities on many measures of effectiveness", few things are this simple, but this is a no-brainer, any for-profit school should never receive a penny of public tax dollars.

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