Early Education Is the Most Segregated Learning Space - Early Learning Nation

Early Education Is the Most Segregated Learning Space

How Researchers Casey Stockstill and Halley Potter Hope to Change That

It’s been 70 years since the Supreme Court’s pivotal Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that racially segregated schools are unequal and unconstitutional. Yet segregation—both racial and economic—persists in many U.S. schools, and is even on the rise. The picture is even more dire in our country’s patchwork of programs for children too young for kindergarten. In early education, economic and racial segregation has long raged on largely unchecked and unremarked upon. Studies have found early education settings to be far more segregated than their elementary or secondary school counterparts, with one study finding that even in the state-funded preschool programs analyzed, only one in five children attended a class that was socioeconomically and racially diverse.

Casey Stockstill, Dartmouth College sociologist and author of False Starts: The Segregated Lives of Preschoolers, and Halley Potter, senior fellow and director of PK-12 education policy at the Century Foundation, want to change that. They’ve joined forces to identify successful economically integrated early education programs and document what they look like and how they make it work. I was excited to hear about their work. In my reporting, I too have explored those rare instances of child care integration, including a large child care center my kids attended. So, I reached out to Stockstill and Potter to learn more about their work. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Kendra Hurley: Why do you think segregation in early education remains so under the radar compared to K-12, and what do we lose when we don’t speak about it, or address it?

Halley Potter: Part of the challenge of talking about segregation in early education is that we haven’t fixed the question of access yet. For all of the challenges in our public schools, at least we have a guaranteed right to an education for students once they start kindergarten. But in early ed, because we still need to make sure more children have access to quality early learning, that’s where most of the conversation stays. But we do need to be having the conversation about segregation as we’re having the conversation about access. If we don’t, then we can end up expanding access on the backbone of our highly inequitable and segregated system.

And that’s a big missed opportunity, because in many ways, early learning environments are best set up to take advantage of a lot of the benefits of diverse educational settings. High quality early learning is play-based—it’s about children interacting with each other—so there’s this great opportunity to have children coming in with different experiences and different vocabularies, creating a really rich learning environment.

Also, parents are talking to teachers more, and [it’s] kind of the whole family coming in to the learning environment, so a diverse community in a classroom can lead to benefits for families as well. You [might] have social connections between a parent who’s looking for a job and a parent who’s looking to hire someone, or knows about a job opening.

There’s evidence that parents are the most receptive and excited about diverse learning environments, during children’s early years. I think of that, and I think, “Let’s capitalize on that.” Getting kids in early education programs when they’re young could help families see the value in that early on, and that might influence their education choices and the ways that they show up in different educational spaces as their kids get older, too.

Casey Stockstill: For many parents, child care is their introduction to school. So, it’s what they get used to in terms of their child’s classmates, and how to engage with the teacher, and what to expect.

Also, teaching kids can look really different when you have segregated classrooms. In my book, I observe a Head Start classroom where you have six kids experiencing issues at home because of poverty, or they’re new to preschool because their family moves all the time because of poverty.

Teachers are dealing with those issues, and that can take away time from things like sitting down and reading a book calmly with a child. We add a list of demands to teachers when we give them a classroom of students who are all in poverty. And when you think about majority white preschools, where there’s one or two kids of color with a white teacher, sometimes that doesn’t communicate that it’s welcoming to kids of color. So, I wonder how segregation is making it harder for preschools to do this work of closing equity gaps. I don’t think separate is equal here either.

Hurley: There are so many barriers to integration in early education, parent choice being one of them. How did you choose to focus on programs that are tackling it with funding solutions?

Potter: We have this fractured early education system. We have private programs that charge tuition that is typically unaffordable to lower income families. And then we have many public programs like Head Start which are only open to low-income families, or to children who have met certain other criteria for risk factors. So, we’re set up for segregation.

The real solution is big public investments in early education that make it possible for everyone to access this together. But until we get there, we have to work with the fractured, flawed system we have, and one of the ways to do that is to create more programs that are accepting multiple types of funding streams. And then we can have multiple types of families enrolled.

Stockstill: Bringing different funding streams together (called blending and braiding funding) is the first step to increased accessibility for Black, Latino and Indigenous families. That’s because we have racial gaps in income and wealth. So, if you have a private program that is expensive and inaccessible to middle-income or lower-income families, that program is going to shut out a disproportionate share of Black, Latino and Indigenous families. There’s a hope that programs that do the blending and braiding will also consider racial equity and inclusion, and make their programs welcoming to children and families of color.

Hurley: Tell me about the project you’re working on to that end.

Potter: We’re building a list of early childhood programs that are doing different types of blending and braiding of funding, and are using that as a way to enroll children from diverse backgrounds, diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, but also diverse racial backgrounds, and in some cases linguistic diversity and diversity of ability. And part of that will be in-depth profiles of some programs. We’re hoping that showing examples of where a funding strategy has been leveraged to create diversity will help increase the appetite to do that, answer some questions about strategies that work, and also serve as an advocacy tool.

In most cases, blending and braiding really feels like pushing against the tide. If you are a Head Start provider and you want to enroll families who pay tuition, there aren’t a lot of supports to make that happen. If you’re at a private preschool and you’re interested in taking children with child care subsidies, again, it’s usually up to you to figure it out.

Stockstill: I hear quite a bit from directors who say, “We accept the subsidy, but we don’t have any families using it.” And if a family goes through an income loss or can’t make a payment, there are programs that want to be able to continue supporting them. And what I tell them is, “Having a [mixed] funding structure is the answer.” So, there’s this appetite for inclusion, but there are these missing links.

And there are parents who would like a diverse early learning environment. You just usually can’t find one, because we know two-thirds of these programs are segregated. I see it as being helpful to certain programs to offer an integrated program, and to kind of sell that as a plus to affluent parents who basically have more choice.

Hurley: What about the big chain child care programs like Kindercare, Bright Horizons and Primrose? Few of their centers take subsidies or vouchers and their tuition is often quite high, making them inaccessible to many families. Yet they’re capturing a bigger and bigger share of the child care market. Are you planning to look at what they might do to diversity their funding and families?

Stockstill: This category of child care that are chains that do franchising charge the highest tuition, and they do not pay teachers more. For them, it’s profit-seeking. And the administrative cost of blending and braiding funding streams, and also accepting the subsidy rate does not lend well to profit.

There’s always a gap between the subsidy rate—which is what the government offers you to provide care to a kid on the subsidy program—and what programs actually need to serve that kid well. And a lot of the successfully diverse programs like Manny Cantor in New York City or All Five in Menlo Park, California, make up that difference, through fundraising, or they’ll charge affluent families even more and let them subsidize the diversity. But all of that takes a commitment and an administrative savviness that I don’t see the chains being interested in.

Hurley: Casey, you’re working on program profiles for this project. What have you seen on visits to diverse child care programs that makes you hopeful?  

Stockstill: My favorite thing is hearing the stories of continuity of learning and care for the children. The Auraria Early Learning Center at the Auraria Higher Education Center in Colorado, serves student parents who are eligible for Head Start alongside faculty who pay full tuition. When the students graduate, they suddenly earn a higher income.

So they’re now past eligibility requirements for Head Start, but they can’t afford the $1,200 a month for care. If a family went to a pure Head Start program, they would have to move centers because they’re no longer eligible for Head Start. But because the program has mixed funding, their children can stay as they increase their income or the reverse, like if someone loses the job. It’s like, “you still get to be in this school; you still deserve to come here; it’s not about how much money your family makes.” I love that.

Are you a teacher or parent in a diverse child care program? Reach out to Halley Potter and Casey Stockstill by writing to potter@tcf.org

Kendra Hurley is a journalist and researcher whose work has fueled reform and helped shape policy in education, child welfare, and homeless services. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg's CityLab, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, and others, and her investigation into teen adoption received an award from the Casey Journalism Center. For over a decade, Kendra worked as senior editor and reporter of the families and poverty project at an applied policy institute at The New School. Before that, she launched an online journal covering the youth media field for the Open Society Institute, and worked with teenagers living in foster care for the youth media publication Represent. While coaching the young writers, she received a PASEsetter award for impactful afterschool educators.

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