Start Early. Start well.

August 01, 2017

Nebraska Parents Speak About Early Care and Education: Samuel J. Meisels's Perspective

The Buffett Early Childhood Institute and Gallup have completed analysis of information about the attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs of parents of young children in the state of Nebraska. These results are part of a representative survey of Nebraska citizens, completed in Spanish or English in fall 2015, and first released in March 2016.

That report brought together two organizations—the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and Gallup—to form an extremely effective team. To the Institute’s deep knowledge about early childhood and its commitment to transforming the learning and development of young children at greatest risk in Nebraska, we added the preeminent public opinion survey researchers in the nation.

We ended up with the largest and most comprehensive survey of early childhood that has ever been conducted in Nebraska. This survey had the highest proportional return of any mail survey that Gallup has ever conducted in its history—and Gallup does a lot of surveys.

Purpose of Survey

The main survey had three purposes:

Understand Nebraskans’ attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about early childhood care and education.

  1. Inform our investment in early care and education.
  2. Gather opinions about the state’s citizens’ support for young children at greatest risk.

More than 7,100 Nebraskans responded to the survey, which was mailed to a random sample of residents, age 18 and older. To ensure that the sample was representative, respondents were selected using a technique called address-based sampling, which randomly selects recipients from a list of all households on file with the U.S. Postal Service. This method ensured that all Nebraskans with a valid address had an equivalent chance of receiving the survey. Gallup then weighted the data by gender, age, education, race, and Hispanic ethnicity to match Nebraska’s demographics.

Main Report Takeaways

The main report had four major takeaways: First, early care and education is important to all Nebraskans. Nearly seven in 10 Nebraskans say early care and education has a significant impact on the long-term success of students.

Second, more affordable and available high-quality child care is needed. Only 6 percent of Nebraskans strongly agree that early care and education is affordable. Only 11 percent of Nebraskans strongly agree that early care and education is sufficiently available. Only 15 percent are very satisfied with the quality of this care, with just 1 percent strongly agreeing that all programs are high-quality.

Third, Nebraskans believe the state should invest more in early care and education. More than two-thirds of Nebraskans say that the state should make early care and education a higher priority than it is today. A majority (58 percent) of Nebraskans say that the state is investing too little in early childhood programs. Only 6 percent say it’s investing too much.

Finally, Nebraskans voice strong support for children in greatest need. The majority wants more investment for children placed at risk, especially those living in poverty.

The parent report constitutes a substudy of the main survey. It reflects responses from three groups of parents: Those with children aged 0  ΜΆ  8; those who are parents of older children; and respondents without children. In this study roughly 18 percent of the sample was composed of parents of young children and 60 percent of respondents reported that they did not have children.

Concern for the Future

One of the reasons we were interested in doing this analysis of parents is that in an earlier study we found that although Nebraskans believe that their state is a great place to be a child—more than eight in 10 respondents said that Nebraska is a great place to grow up in—they expressed concerns about children’s future.

Our data show that only 37 percent of Nebraskans with young children and 40 percent without children believe that children’s lives will become better 10 years from now. In fact, more than two-thirds of Nebraskans say the lives of Nebraska’s children have gotten worse or at best have stayed the same over the past decade. What’s more, only 10 percent of Nebraskans strongly believe that most young children in this state are prepared to be successful when they enter Kindergarten and only 6 percent of respondents strongly agree that most young children from low-income families are prepared to do well when they start school in Nebraska. All of this made it clear that we needed to examine the attitudes and knowledge about early care and education of parents of young children.

Research Questions

We posed three questions of our data:

What are Nebraska parents’ perspectives about early care and education?

  1. What are Nebraska parents’ perceptions about the accessibility and affordability of high-quality early care and education in the state?
  2. What are Nebraska parents’ views about investment in early care and education?

Child Care Options

One of the first things we had to settle was how willing Nebraska parents are to use early care and education, as contrasted to caring for their children at home in the early years of life. People often ask if young children aren’t best cared for at home by their mothers, rather than in some form of formal child care arrangement. Many arguments can be used to discredit the position that all mothers should be at home with their children, not the least of which is that Nebraska is among the top 10 states in the nation where both parents are working and 62 percent of all mothers with infants in this state are in the workforce. In Nebraska, if kids have to be cared for at home, most of them will be home alone.

We asked “When families cannot care for their children in their own home during all or part of the day, which care settings do you think are the best option for most families?” The responses showed that two-thirds of the respondents believe that non-parental/non-familial care is the best option for children. Only 32 percent favored family, and 2 percent mentioned friends or neighbors. This corresponds to another finding that two-thirds of Nebraskans with young children report that their child is enrolled in some type of paid, out-of-home early childhood care.

Child Care Quality

Nevertheless, fewer than half of all respondents are satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of care and education available where they live. This is the case despite the fact that a large majority of parents of young children (70 percent) rate their own child’s option as “excellent” and another 20 percent say it’s “good.” This dilemma is similar to the oft-repeated finding that parents tend to rate the school their child attends as better than the other schools in their area or in the nation. We do the same thing with local congressmen whom we like better than Congress overall, and other individuals or groups that are frequently criticized and perceived as part of a distant or globally ineffective organization. But the fact is that parents have concerns about quality.

Child Care Affordability

They are also concerned about affordability. One conclusion that most parents of young children agree with is that cost is the greatest obstacle they face in obtaining high-quality early care and education. Sixty-six percent of parents of young children cite cost as their biggest challenge, much higher than the next two problems they identify: transportation and hours of operation.

Support for Programs for 3- and 4-Year-Olds

Despite problems of cost, we wanted to know if Nebraska parents support greater investment in early care and education. We found that nearly 60 percent of respondents say the state is investing too little in early childhood and only 6 percent say it is spending too much. Further, 78 percent of respondents with young children and 72 percent of those without children want the state to make programs for all 4-year-olds available to any family that chooses them.

When asked about universal access for 3-year-olds, these figures drop to 59 percent of parents with young children and 55 percent of those without children in support of such programs. Following the pattern of reduced public support for programs for younger children, only 34 percent agree or strongly agree that early care programs should be available for all infants and toddlers in the state. But far more parents of young children than parents without children support infant-toddler care: 42 percent vs. 27 percent.

Parent Report Takeaways

These results lead us to three overall conclusions: First, Nebraska parents report a need for early childhood programs. The great majority of young children are in some form of paid, out-of-home programming and, as mentioned earlier, parents value these settings and the professionals who work in them.

Second, there is substantial concern about the quality of care available in the state overall, though parents claim that their own care arrangements are more than adequate. Still, many families struggle to find care and pay for it and many Nebraskans, even those without children, believe that these programs should be available for any family that chooses them.

Third, there is consensus among all respondents that the state should make a greater investment in early care and education than it is doing at present. As expected, parents with young children feel most strongly about this, with nearly two-thirds stating that Nebraska’s investment is too low. But most striking is the support from residents without children. Six in 10 respondents without children say there is too little investment in early care and education.

These findings confirm that changes need to take place so that quality early childhood programs become affordable and available for all Nebraska families. The survey tells us that Nebraskans recognize that early care and education is critical to children’s success in school and life. Moreover, this care cannot be the sole responsibility of parents, many of whom are in the workforce and are unable to care for their children at home, as was done in previous decades. We need the public and private sectors to take a more active role in helping all children get the best start in life and thereby reverse the sense of despair about the future that our analysis uncovered.

This survey, the most comprehensive and largest polling of public opinion about children in Nebraska’s history, supports the conclusion that more must be done. Among parents and non-parents alike, the will is there. Now we must find a way.

– Samuel J. Meisels, Founding Executive Director, Buffett Early Childhood Institute


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