This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Common sense might suggest that the best early-childhood programs would do better financially.
But a new study finds that providers in Southeastern Pennsylvania have little fiscal incentive to reach for high quality.
A Nonprofit Finance Fund study of nearly 150 early-care and education programs in the Philadelphia area found that all of them – no matter their quality rating – operated on razor-thin margins.
So for operators, it’s more of a moral choice than a fiscal one to offer robust programming run by college-educated, certified teachers.
"There’s a lag between the resources required to support the provision of high quality and actually what it costs to do it. There’s an operating gap," said Ann O’Brien, CEO of Montgomery Early Learning Center.
The center’s programs receive the state’s highest ratings – with locations in West Philadelphia, Point Breeze, Norristown and Pottstown.
The study found that a year of early-childhood programming in Southeastern Pennsylvania costs $12,000 on average, while the maximum state subsidy is $9,000.
To serve low-income parents, operators often struggle to bridge that gap through grants or higher fees for families who can afford them.
The existing funding model also makes it difficult for high-quality operators to attract and retain well-qualified teachers.
"Right now, our teachers earn, on average, about less than half of what their counterparts in public schools learn," said O’Brien. "They work a full year. They work longer days. They have college degrees, but they earn significantly less."