As co-chair of the Early Childhood Quality Standards Task Force, I've been leading a series of Town Meetings around the state. We've heard from parents, educators, academics, owner-operators and representatives of large chain child care companies. When parents and eductors spoke, they talked about why it was important that we develop some clear tool to help the public know what kind of environment that young children are in for 8 or 10 hours a day. When the industry representatives spoke, with only a few exceptions, it was to relate that they are barely making a profit, that their staffs are poorly educated, under-paid, and over-worked. And that, whatever recommendations that the Task Force makes to the Governor and the Legislature, they needed to include more money. Lots more money.
After one of the meetings, a Task Force member from the private sector leaned over to me and said, "I have never seen an industry that had such a sense of entitlement to public funds." Then with a twinkle in his eye, he added, "Except for defense contractors."
But what struck me was not the sense of entitlement. After all, if private child care providers are really providing not just a market commodity, but a necessary part of our educational system, then we have to make sure it delivers what we need, even if it costs us all more. What struck me was that this was a foreshadowing of what K-12 education will look like after a decade under Karen Floyd and the education privateers.
After all, ten years ago, "day care centers" were used mostly by the upwardly mobile (or already upward). Now, "child development centers" cater to to all economic strata, thanks to the explosion of "vouchers" for child care that appeared after "welfare reform" in the mid-90's. Those vouchers made it possible for the children of the poor to go to pre-school with the children of the not-so-poor, and created a huge industry of private providers with an economic impact of $787 million on the state's economy. Child care centers sprouted like mushrooms in the piney woods under the nurturing rain of taxpayer's money.
But that is peanuts compared to what kind of an economic impact a privatized K-12 will have. New private schools will pop up everywhere, funded by taxpayers, and then will struggle to pay their teachers, meet the strict criteria of performance measures, and still make a profit. Then, somewhere around 2016, when the SAT's are still lagging, the graduation rates unimproved, and the political pressure to "do something about the crisis in education" has built up enough steam, some other Task Force will look out at an audience of providers and hear their tales of marketplace Darwinism. And they will be as bewildered as the current Task Force on child care.
Because the problem with the child care industry is the same as the problem facing the rest of the South Carolina educational system: poverty. The grinding, hope-deadening, family-crushing, no-way-out existence of a growing underclass. We can patch this mess up with all manner of quixotic "market-based solutions." But until we can create an economy that helps bring people out of poverty, stabilizes familes and gives hope for the future, we are going to fail.
And vouchers aren't going to fix it.