Child care providers in Texas have operated for over two decades on standards that allow as many as 11 two-year-olds under the supervision of only one caregiver at a time.
But with standards undergoing a mandatory review by the Health and Human Services Commission, advocates and some daycare providers are hoping long-fought changes to the ratios will be implemented.
The agency is currently accepting public comment on the standards through the end of the month before adopting new standards.
Caregivers say the ratios, which are among the highest in the nation, stretch them thin when at full capacity. Studies also link the ratios to less safe learning environments and lower student outcomes.
“In my experience that is usually when the most accidents happen,” said Dee Merritt, who runs Happy Days School in Garland. “As far as kids getting bit, or somebody getting hurt because the teacher can’t be doing two things at one time.”
The standards, which are nearly double the ratio recommended by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and other national standards have been linked to serious incidents and injuries and subpar academic development in young children.
While advocates and daycare centers agree that lower ratios will provide a safer environment for kids across the state, providers who operate at current capacity will face financial losses if the ratios are reduced.
Merritt saw that first hand when she reduced class sizes in order to gain accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She downsized by two children, for example, in her classroom – costing her almost $1,600 a month.
“You do take the money hit, and it is close to the salary of one person for a month, and yet you need an extra person,” Merritt said. “So you either have to raise your rates, or cut back on the number of children you take overall. It is a balancing act.”
On top of previous financial hardships, the decision comes as child care centers continue to struggle from impacts related to the coronavirus — which forced many programs to shut their doors, and reduced enrollment across the board.
Kara Waddell, the CEO of Child Care Associates said that while child care standards regarding ratios are a concern, they are only one part of a broader suite of issues that need to be addressed to ensure child care safety and quality.
“I struggle a bit about knowing if this is the moment to fix it, knowing the economic challenges that our child care programs are facing today during COVID realities,” Waddell said. “We are supportive of the idea of lowering ratios, we just think we should do that in concert with thinking through the economics of how do we pay for that higher standard and that lower ratio.”
David Feigen, an early childhood policy associate for Texans Care for Children, said the funding fix is needed, but can’t come at the cost of safe environments.
“Many providers have figured out how to offer safe, lower ratios without raising costs,” Feigen said. “The economics of child care are challenging and require more funding for parents and centers. The solution can’t be for the state to put children in danger.”
Past efforts fail
Past efforts to lower ratios have been met with resistance from lawmakers and child care providers who said the changes would devastate the financially vulnerable sector.
The push-back came after the Department of Family and Protective Services suggested moderate reductions in ratios for 2, 3 and 5-year-olds in 2010. The agency said at the time that they “do not believe the current ratios adequately protect the health and safety of children in some age ranges.”
Despite testimony from vocal opponents to the changes, the agency released a survey at the time that found 75% of child care providers were already operating at lower ratios, meaning that any fiscal impact would be minimal. But after public comment, where some providers questioned the veracity of the survey results, the agency relented.
In 2016, the agency did not reintroduce the changes despite calls to do so. The same year, the state partnered with the University of Texas to research the impact of daycare ratios on children’s safety – but later pulled out citing a lack of time and resources by state inspectors.
Preliminary findings from that study were released by Child and Family Research Partnership in 2017. According to a report, “findings, though preliminary, suggest an important link between classroom ratios and children’s safety in child care centers.”
“Centers in which all classrooms had ratios better than the minimum standard were significantly safer compared to other centers,” researchers said.
North Texas Early Childhood education advocates, including Bethany Edwards of the Executive Early Learning Alliance, said there is broad support for lower ratios among child care providers.
Providers like Gloria Simmons, who operates PollyWog Early Learning Academy in Fort Worth, operate below capacity both for safety and for contingencies, like when a teacher can’t show up to work.
“That way I would still be within ratio with the kiddos,” she said.
Melanie Rubin, the Director of the North Texas Early Learning Alliance echoed that, but said the policy change is needed for the few that don’t.
“I worry personally a lot about those that are (operating at current ratios), and the safety of those children,” Rubin said. “And the misperception to parents that the state is saying that is what is safe for children when it is truly not.”
Quality Pre-K linked to lower ratios
Numerous studies have found that smaller class sizes, and lower teacher ratios are linked to higher quality early education programs. But the cost, and resources needed to implement those conditions often make wide-scale implementation difficult.
The pandemic created a unique opportunity for educators to see what impact smaller ratios could have by forcing the policy by way of social distancing requirements.
Camp Fire First Texas, a nonprofit in North Texas, provides a School Readiness Program that mentors and monitors outcomes for early education teachers that feed into Fort Worth ISD. Over the last year, leaders recorded observations with smaller pre-K class sizes.
“We don’t always put research into practice in terms of our expectations as a state,” Lyn Lucas, the senior vice president of Early Education Workforce Development for the organization said. “Then we have something like this happen and behaviors improve, early literacy improves and wow, the research really applies.”
According to data collected over the last year, the organization exceeded targets in all literacy focus areas for pre-K students, in addition to communication targets in toddlers and fine motor skills in infants.
Advocates point to these types of outcomes as evidence for the importance of lower ratios in early learning classrooms.
For Merritt, the daycare provider in Garland, it is a goal that is in-line with transforming the industry’s focus across the board and into the future.
“The childcare industry needs to change from a babysitting mentality to an education mentality, where you are teaching the future of our country,” she said. “And if you have numbers where you can’t even make sure they are all changed in a reasonable time, then you are not providing the care much less the quality instruction you need to do.”