Can the US make much-needed changes to its ECE sector?

Laura Bornfreund and Conor Williams have examined President Obama’s second-term focus on early childhood education in The Atlantic.

While early education’s policy reality hasn’t lived up to the last five years’ rhetoric, there is some evidence of a silver lining. Think of it like a rail system: it’s as though we’ve spent half a decade designing and laying new high-speed rails linking sparkling, as-yet unused train stations. We’ve invested in shiny, state-of-the-art engines. But we haven’t yet bought fuel or enough cars to serve all of the system’s young “passengers.”

President Obama has another two years of office left, and is facing incredible political hurdles. It remains to be seen if anything more can be achieved on this issue – which is a shame, as it can and must be a vital part of addressing rising inequality in that country.

It stands in contrast to Australia, where in 2014 we could actually be moving backwards on higher standards and greater outcomes for children’s learning and wellbeing.

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EYQF ends, as it was always going to, in complete farce

Ending months of speculation, Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley today announced that the Government would seek to redirect $300 million committed to the Early Years Quality Fund into “professional development” for the entire sector.

“…this new programme will specifically target professional development opportunities that will provide improved access to childcare and early learning career paths for educators.

“This will in turn help retain staff in the sector and meet the improved education standards required under the National Quality Framework.

“This is shaping up to be the biggest public investment in professional development in the childcare sector’s history. I encourage all operators to recognise this once in a generation opportunity to improve the skills of some of our lowest paid workers.”

An ignoble end to an inequitable and hastily cobbled-together election year throw-of-the-dice.

I have advocated against this fund since it was first publicly announced in April. At the time, I stated:

I believe that this funding package has the potential to disastrously undermine the Early Childhood Education sector and the campaign for professional wages.

So here we find ourselves. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be proved right.

An independent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers has slammed the Fund. This will undoubtedly be read by supporters of the fund as unfair and political.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have had an ongoing commitment to examining and reporting on the early childhood education and care sector, and have been overwhelmingly progressive. They even advocated to Government a “Gonski-style” funding model of ECEC, where children are funded at a base level and loadings are applied for children experiencing vulnerabilities.

Hardly a Conservative mouthpiece.

The report accuses the Government and United Voice of using the Fund as a thinly-veiled means to drive up union membership. Hardly a huge scandal that a Union would seek to increase its membership, but the use of taxpayer funds to do so is obviously of concern.

From my point of view, I believe that the Union have in the majority of cases acted in the best interests of some of the lowest-paid people in this country.

It is however, absolutely true that in some cases the “marketing” of the EYQF was handled badly by United Voice. PwC claim to have evidence of union delegates harassing services to become members, or they would not receive money from the Fund.

I will not give specific details, but I can confirm from my own experience that in some cases that absolutely did happen.

(Not, I hasten to add, in the ACT where the United Voice branch has always worked collaboratively and effectively with the ECEC workforce).

Some in the sector have raised the point that surely it’s good if more educators join the Union? Absolutely. But holding a bucket of money over their heads and essentially telling them “join us or you don’t get it” is immoral and disgusting behaviour.

The structural issues with the sector mean that Union membership is not going to follow the same trajectory as teachers, or nurses. The overwhelming influence of market forces, and a much lower level of community respect means that there is not going to be some huge upsurge in membership.

Particularly when a Labor Government announces a fund that will only to go to less than half of the sector, and is clearly aimed at keeping private operators out.

Not only that, but then splitting the fund into two buckets (at the very last minute) was an absolutely outrageous and incomprehensible decision. Making an already inequitable policy even more inequitable? That takes a level of political incompetence I can barely conceive of.

And this is the fundamental problem with the entire Fund, and why it was always going to end in this farce. No matter what the intention, no matter what the strategy, no matter what the “long-term plan”, funding only 40% of the sector was a despicable and grossly unfair policy decision.

At the centre of all these policy discussions are lowly-paid educators, the majority of whom will now be rightly furious. They have spend the last 7 months being systematically treated like fools, by Labor and Liberal politicians.

From my point of view (for what it’s worth), all of the contracts, conditional or otherwise, should have been honoured by Tony Abbott. That was the election commitment.

The Government will spend the money anyway, on some nebulous “professional development” fund. No further details, of course. I particularly like the notion that the Government would quite like those will be getting money through EYQF contracts to pay it back, pretty please. That should go extremely well.

I actually completely agree with taking the entire $300 million and spending it on the entire sector. It’s what should have been done in the first place.

But the new Government has demonstrated that, just as with the previous Government, they are prepared to play low politics with ECEC.

The focus now has to shift to the Productivity Commission Inquiry, and the Wage Equity Case.

Let the EYQF stand as a reminder to advocates for the sector to be careful what you wish for – and to remember that forgoing our principles of equity because a small bucket of money appears will always end as the Fund has ended today. In embarrassing farce.

EYQF conditional funding withdrawn

The new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, appears to have confirmed that conditional funding to increase wages under Labor’s Early Years Quality Fund will not be delivered.

The Education Department letter – obtained by The Australian – was sent on Friday, before the Abbott government’s month-long review reports on whether it can claw back $300 million allocated by Labor for pay rises in the industry, to compensate for its increased quality reforms.

Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley has set a deadline of the end of this month for the independent report.

“If your organisation has not yet implemented wage increases or otherwise has not yet fulfilled the conditions of the commonwealth’s offer of funding, that offer of funding is hereby revoked,” the letter says.

“Your organisation should do nothing further to commit itself to wage increases in the expectation that EYQF (Early Youth [sic] Quality Fund) funding will be made available for those wage increases.”

An inevitable result. I publicly attacked the EYQF when it was first announced, and have done so ever since. It was, and is, appalling public policy.

It is important, vitally important, to remember that advocacy for our sector should not be tied to a single campaign, a single announcement, or a single political party.

The EYQF was a political victory for United Voice, not for the sector.

It was a last-ditch and desperate attempt by the out-going Labor Government to attempt to wedge the Coalition on childcare issues.

If the then-Government had taken the issue of professional wages seriously, they had six years in Government to do something about it. A fund that would apply to 40% of the sector, announced at the eleventh hour, was a joke.

So now we have early childhood centres who have, in good faith, applied for funds under the EYQF who will miss out. Threats of a class action are just threats at this stage, and I can’t anticipate that anyone in the ECEC sector will have the funds to launch a long and expensive court case.

The ECEC sector should immediately dismiss the EYQF, and union members should strongly advocate that only a solution that applies to the entire sector, without strings, should ever be agreed to on their behalf again.

Roll on the Pay Equity case at Fair Work Australia.

Hillary Clinton launches “Too Small to Fail”

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has launched a new US-based early learning advocacy initiative.

Too Small to Fail will promote scientific research about early childhood development with the goal of reaching as many American parents and business leaders as possible and motivating them to act.

“One of the best investments we can make as a nation is to give our kids the ingredients they need to develop in the first five years of life,” Secretary Clinton said.  “We will help bring together the tools that will give children the chance to succeed by the time they’re five, so that when those kids get to school, they’re able to compete, they are more able to pursue their own dreams.  That’s what excites me aboutToo Small to Fail.”

You can also check out a video launching the initiative here.

Addressing inequality

Interesting piece in the New York Times by James J. Heckman, Professor of Economics the University of Chicago, on early childhood education for all.

Everyone knows that education boosts productivity and enlarges opportunities, so it is natural that proposals for reducing inequality emphasize effective education for all. But these proposals are too timid. They ignore a powerful body of research in the economics of human development that tells us which skills matter for producing successful lives. They ignore the role of families in producing the relevant skills They also ignore or play down the critical gap in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children that emerges long before they enter school.

While education is a great equalizer of opportunity when done right, American policy is going about it all wrong: current programs don’t start early enough, nor do they produce the skills that matter most for personal and societal prosperity.

America has an ingrained distrust against the State interfering in the lives of children and families, which is part of why their “daycare” system is so dysfunctional.

But there is a growing discussion and debate in the US about the importance of early childhood education, particularly following President Obama’s recent focus on ECE.

With Australia still facing structural funding issues with ECE, and a strong focus on testing and outcomes in the school system, a focus on addressing inequality and giving young people the skills and resilience to become successful could be very powerful.

The article is part of the New York Times’ series The Great Divide, which focuses on inequality in various forms. Well worth following.

Is a lack of high-quality ECEC holding back women’s rights?

The U.S. lags far behind other industrialized nations in establishing a functional child care system. That’s why President Obama’s recent proposal to provide universal access to preschool is encouraging. While it doesn’t completely address the needs of the 11 million children younger than 5 utilizing child care each week, it’s a step in the right direction for women and families.

Not only does preschool improve the educational trajectory of young children, but universal access to preschool would eliminate one barrier to women’s equality in the workforce — at least, beyond a child’s first three years of life. The work-life policies that [New York Times columnist] Coontz seeks must be accompanied by increased public investment in child care and early education, particularly for the most marginalized women.

Anika Rahman, Huffington Post (2/3/2013)

The childcare sector was set up primarily to provide opportunities for women to enter the workforce, due to entrenched cultural biases towards women taking on the child-rearing role. While it is certainly true that a well-funded and high quality ECEC sector could improve women’s rights in the workplace, it can be problematic to purely view ECEC as a workforce issue. This means that the focus is on workers, and not children.

If we wanted to view ECEC as purely about workforce participation, we could simply cut qualification requirements and regulations and have it as an extremely cheap babysitting service. This would enable more families to afford it and enable great workforce participation.

But would that be in the best interests of children? Surely a superior proposition is to have high-quality early learning for children at no cost to any family – thereby ensuring equity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is the philosophy behind universal-access advocacy, and would be working in the best interests of children, while also giving families (particularly women) choices around their careers.

United States early childhood educators facing similar pay struggles to Australia

Heather Amos, who works at A New Dimension Child Enrichment Center, said she is actually making less money in the child care field now than she was seven years ago. “It’s not just a physically demanding job but emotionally as well,” she said. “Obviously no one goes into this field to get rich, but I feel given the amount we are investing in the lives of these children, we should earn more.” Still, she has mixed feelings about unions. “A lot of it comes down to who is running the unions, but I feel childcare workers are underpaid for the amount of work we do.”

Sheila Regan, Twin Cities Daily Planet (1/3/2013)

The United States has a much more complicated system of early childhood education and care which varies wildly from state to state. Government funding levels are also a huge issue, with President Obama prioritising an overhaul of preschool funding in his most recent State of the Union address.

A conservative view: The dangers of “social justice”

Leftwing activist groups have many strategies to train early childhood education teachers to “provide teachers and parents with the tools to transform schools into centers of justice where students learn to read, write, and change the world.”

– This article is rather incredible. Believe it or not, that quote above is meant to be negative. Wow.

“Radicalizing early childhood teachers”, Phyllis Schlafly (The Moral Liberal)