One of the central issues to emerge from the tragic Louise Woodward case is the urgent need for quality day care in the United States.
Almost alone among industrialized countries, the US has no commitment to the provision of day care. Working parents are forced to choose among often unpalatable and inadequate alternatives.
The fact is, it is safer for a child to be in a licensed child-care facility than in the hands of poorly regulated caregivers at home. We are not arguing that day-care centers are wonderful places, or that there are no problems in organized child-care environments. We're only saying we, as a society, need to provide quality, organized child-care alternatives for families.
Sadly, every few decades the crisis in child care becomes a topic in the news media, in a political candidate's platform, or is highlighted in the latest study. Good child care is hardly a revolutionary idea, but it seems beyond us.
Organized child care has many advantages - for children, caregivers, and families. Children can interact with other children, learn from their peers and from adults, and benefit from an educational environment. Caregivers have the advantage of working with others and getting supervision. Families can be sure that the child-care center or nursery school they choose will be supervised by the state and conform to basic standards.
The problem is economics. While most women must work, most families don't have access to affordable, high-quality child care. Early childhood programs, meanwhile, survive through the efforts of charitable organizations, modest government support, and programs run by universities or corporations for the children of employees. Mainly, the system functions by exploiting underpaid and poorly trained caregivers. It's not possible to earn a decent living working in child care, so there's little professionalism in the industry.
Perhaps the Woodward case will help galvanize us to take the dilemma of child care seriously. If it does, something positive will come from the great public concern the case has generated. For a start, here's what's needed:
* A recognition that women participate in the labor force and families need child care. This need extends to all social classes and ethnic groups.
* Families have a right to quality child care, regardless of income or circumstances.
* Quality child care requires subsidy. It is a social responsibility that yields a social benefit. Surely, sliding scales of payment based on income, need-based loan schemes, and other arrangements could be devised to help foot the bill. The fact is, child care requires financial support. This reality might be too much to bear for a society that barely supports kindergartens, but it's true.
* Child-care workers must be paid a living wage. They must be professionally trained and supervised, given access to in-service training. In other words they must be treated like professionals.
A utopian vision? No. Other countries with strong economies do it. Indeed, many Americans would be shocked to learn that we rank near the bottom among wealthy countries in support of child care and other family policies. We must at last create a rational child-care system in the US.
* Philip G. Altbach is Monan Professor of education at Boston College. Constance Gresser was director of the Clinton Path Nursery School in Brookline, Mass., for 13 years.