SOUTHERN INDIANA — A recent Indiana University Southeast study illuminates the need for more early education opportunities in Southern Indiana, as well as the obstacles faced by families and providers.

The IUS Applied Research and Education Center, in collaboration with the Southern Indiana Early Learning Coalition (SoIN4Early), has released a report on access to affordable high-quality early care and education in Southern Indiana. The study is focused on Clark, Floyd, Harrison, Scott and Washington counties.

The study, which includes both a full report and a research brief series, is meant to expand the community's awareness of early education to help caregivers, providers and legislators move in the right direction, Metro United Way Director of Southern Indiana Pam Ottersbach said. Metro United Way is one of the local organizations involved in SoIN4Early. 

The new report is a continuation of an earlier IUS study on the connection between early education and healthcare and economic benefits, according to Melissa Fry, director of the IUS Applied Research and Education Center. The research was funded by a grant from the Partnerships of Early Learners.

The study shows that about 77 percent of children from birth to age 5 live in homes where all parents work. However, many of these kids are not receiving care or education from highly-ranked programs, Fry said.

Less than half of local providers participate in Indiana's Paths to QUALITY childcare quality rating and improvement system, and less than one-fifth have a high-quality ranking, according to the study. The system considers a level three or four as high quality.

According to the study, the five-county region had fewer than 26 licensed child care slots per 100 children under age 5 in 2017, so about half of those children in the area are in mostly unregulated care. In Floyd County, there were 10.8 high-quality slots per 100 children under age five, and in Clark County, there were 7.1 high-quality slots per 100 children.

"Part of the access problem is that we don't have enough quality care," she said. "It's a serious supply-and-demand problem. The income level in the region does not provide effective demand for quality care. You also have to have a more qualified workforce along with safe facilities, which has a lot to do with high-quality care. That all costs money."

Affordability is one of the biggest obstacles to high-quality care, Fry said. While low-income families might have access to vouchers, long waitlists due to limited spots can prevent kids from receiving the quality of care and education they need, and families who cannot afford high-quality care might not be eligible for vouchers.

The need for more Paths to QUALITY-ranked high-quality programs was among Fry's biggest takeaways from the study. She said Indiana's On My Way Pre-K program is a first step. The program offers grants to 4-year-olds from low-income families so they can attend high-quality pre-K program.

However, there is also a major need for more early education opportunities for kids from birth to age 3, Fry said, because it is a period of vast brain development. She would like to see more programs targeting the younger age range.

Low pay for childcare workers is another barrier to accessibility of high-quality early education, she said. The report shows that childcare workers' earnings are similar to those of fast food workers, making it more difficult to maintain a consistent, well-trained workforce. 

Ottersbach said childcare providers are often undervalued.

"People don't necessarily look at [childcare providers] with the same value as teachers in k-12, but these individuals are truly molding the minds of kids during important periods of brain development," she said. "The impact these people have on our youngest is significant, and they need to be valued at the same level."

Fry said both the public and private sector could have a role in expanding early education opportunities. For example, more companies could provide onsite high-quality childcare. This not only benefits families' access to childcare, she said, but it also has a positive economic effect for companies.

"Onsite childcare tends to significantly increase productivity for working parents and lower absentee rates," she said. "Economically, it's a good investment for private employers."

She emphasized the broad economic impacts of early education inaccessibility. According to a study from the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, absences and employee turnover cost Indiana employers about $1.8 billion a year, and lack of childcare access contributes to a $1.1 billion annual loss of economic activity in the state.

"These really dramatic figures help people understand that when people have good childcare, they're good workers," Fry said. "They're stable, reliable workers. And then kids who go to high-quality care can be part of a stronger labor force in the future."

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