Letter: The Child Development Center is exemplary and should be scaled up

Letter to the Editor

This is my conclusion after deciphering the justification by University of Minnesota leadership for closing the University’s Child Development Center, reviewing the costs and benefits, and knowing that peers make substantial investments in early education and care.

At the core of this issue are two facts. First, high quality early education is difficult to find. This is a larger social problem that all communities face. The best estimate is that only about a quarter of children up to age 5 are enrolled in high quality programs. Second, early education and school readiness are high priorities for the state. Increased access to high quality programs is one of the surest ways to increase school readiness as well as support working parents.

For the University to close an exemplary center within this context contradicts the land grant mission. It also adds to the problem of low access to high quality rather than contributing to the problem’s solution. By serving 140 children and 220 parents with 240 children on the waiting list, even the most dysfunctional school districts would not make such a move and then recreate CDC by moving the Institute of Child Development laboratory preschool to its location. Three reasons reveal why scaling CDC should be the highest priority.

1. CDC and other exemplary programs have economic benefits that far exceed their costs. Five decades of research shows that enrichment of the quality found in CDC has economic and social benefits that exceed costs by a factor of three. This is likely underestimated since it does not consider the psychological benefits to parents nor the gains of hosting 150 practicum students and student employees each year. The key elements that yield these benefits are (a) small classes and low child to staff ratios, (b) focus on a spectrum of readiness skills within a developmental philosophy, (c) strong family-school partnering, (d) frequent monitoring and feedback, and (e) teachers with BAs and/or who are compensated at levels comparable to K-12. CDC has all of these elements.

2. Peer institutions make substantial investments in early education. A review of 16 Big Ten and peer institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas, Austin reveals that 13 sponsor as many as 5 centers, including lab schools, with substantial investment. Exclusive of lab schools, our closest peers (i.e., University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan) have three or four full-time centers that are centrally managed. Purdue University and the University of Maryland recently funded new centers at an average cost of $5 million. If these institutions can justify millions in investment while we believe that a net investment (“subsidy”) of a couple hundred thousand dollars is too high, this explains why CDC is the only University full-time center.

3. Closing is wasteful of existing and planned investments. Under the scenario of CDC being repurposed as the ICD lab school, the budget for renovating this “new” center is over $2 million. Since CDC has spend over $1 million in various renovations in recent years, why  are these re-renovation costs justified? A new center can be built for not much more, and in the process 140 high quality slots are saved! No peers expanded capacity with this addition by subtraction approach. Consideration of all benefits and costs requires a recalibration of the current subsidy. It is most prudent to grow the center.

Looking forward, however, a win-win for the University and early education is possible. It is clear that CDC should be administered under an existing or new University-wide office that prioritizes early education for University families. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has an Office of Child Care and Family Services. Many other universities have a similar structure.

The ICD lab school should either remain in its current location or go to a new one close by. Like Maryland’s example, community collaborations are feasible. Wisconsin runs a hybrid model of five internal and external centers. In any scenario that matches those of our peers, resources well beyond the status quo are needed. Scaling CDC and its exemplary model is what the university community deserves.

This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Arthur J. Reynolds is a professor in the Institute of Child Development and co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative.