Innovation Brief: New Initiative Makes Bold Asks for Infants and Toddlers


Start Strong PA, a coalition of early childhood advocates, launched a multi-year, statewide initiative in January 2019 to steer public funding toward infants and toddlers. The group collected data, engaged with the business community and providers, and brought forward a bold ask of $140 million over three years to support infant and toddler child care. During the first year, the state saw a 7.8% net increase in funding. With this early success under their belts, Start Strong PA will continue to support a bold approach for infants and toddlers.

In Pennsylvania, only 34% of infants and toddlers currently receiving child care subsidies are in a high-quality child care program. Early childhood leaders in Pennsylvania recognized inequities in the system and gaps in meeting the needs of families. 

Start Strong PA is working to build on the state’s previous successes with Pre-K and show state and community leaders that a stronger early childhood support system for prenatal to three can help solve a number of challenges currently facing Pennsylvanian families. 

To best address the need for more high-quality child care, state leaders knew they needed to gather more data. In 2017, they formed a coalition of ten partners and turned their attention to infants and toddlers in the state. The group gathered data on existing services and consulted with child care providers around the state. The coalition spent nearly a year and a half holding a series of focus groups, face-to-face meetings, summits, webinars, conference calls, and meetings with individual providers. In many cases, this was the first time providers had been asked for their opinions, said Diane Barber from the Pennsylvania Child Care Association (PACCA), a coalition partner that represents business providers around the state.

 “We had a long conversation with the actual providers of child care services to get their input as to what our goals and our strategy would be,” Barber said. “How could we improve the system of child care, beyond just needing more money? We hoped having that investment with providers from the very beginning would continue to motivate them to advocate for themselves once the initiative actually started.”

In 2018, the Philadelphia-based Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) commissioned a cost study for infant and toddler care. According to PCCY’s Nelida Sepulvida, the study found that the gap between the cost of high-quality child care and the subsidies received was especially large for infants ($7,601 higher than the current subsidy rate). Further, the supply of high-quality centers in Philadelphia was low, which meant that parents receiving subsidies had more incentive to place their children in a lower-quality center.      

In addition to the qualitative information gathered from providers, the PCCY Philadelphia study provided the quantitative data needed to help Start Strong PA make a data-rich case to lawmakers. The coalition was able to use the Philadelphia numbers to scale up to a statewide level. Their cost modeling showed that $100 million per year over a period of ten years would be needed to bring Pennsylvania’s early (0-3) child care services in line with the quality of Pre-K and Kindergarten services.

Strong Start PA focuses on four issues:

  1. Access to high-quality care for low to middle income families
  2. Sufficient funding for infant and toddler care that reflects the true costs of high-quality programs
  3. Adequate caregiver compensation
  4. Oversight, accountability, and evaluation of the system

Fortunately, public support surrounding these issues is strong. The coalition found that a large majority of Pennsylvania residents support subsidies for child care. A 2018 survey indicated 77% of Pennsylvanians supported increased funding for high-quality child care, and 82% believed the government needed to do more to make high-quality programs affordable for families in the state.

Cost modeling was just a first step in what will undoubtedly be a long process of bringing infant and toddler care up to the same level of investment as Pre-K or Kindergarten care in Pennsylvania. “It’s good to put the big numbers out there and make the case for why caregivers should be paid well,” said Simon Workman, who worked on the Philadelphia cost-of-care study, “but also be realistic about the fact that you’re not going to change the subsidy rate or the pay of teachers overnight. So, set that long-term goal but have a few points to get there along the way.”

Start Strong PA will be a multi-year effort. “We’re beginning this as a five-year initiative,” Askins explained. “We know the funding needed to give infants and toddlers access to high-quality care will require significant investment each year. We aren’t putting a final figure on it, but for the next three years we are proposing that the state double the federal investment. Our ask from the administration and legislature over the first three years of the initiative will be $140 million.”

The Start Strong PA initiative will continue to rely heavily on the precedents and successes used in earlier Pre-K initiatives, according to Jodi Askins from the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children (PennAEYC)—one of the Start Strong PA partners who represents individual early learning professionals in the state. There was no need to reinvent the wheel, Askins said. “We are building the structure and strategies by looking at our own Pre-K initiative and learning from that and leveraging its successes.” This includes continuing to use Pennsylvania’s existing QRIS, the Keystone STARS system. Centers are currently rated on quality indicators, and subsidies for eligible children are scaled accordingly. Family and home-based child care providers do not participate in the rating system.

The coalition will continue to advocate for additional funds to fully implement the proposed model. The state’s 2019 budget did not appropriate the full request, however, it did signal important first steps including the allocation of $27 million in federal resources to expand access to high-quality child care for infants and toddlers, and $5 million to increase home visiting programs for infants and toddlers. 

According to Askins, one barrier to fully funding a statewide child care subsidy program was a misunderstanding regarding the nature of Pre-K services. Askins noted that Pennsylvania lawmakers and policy leaders were often very enthusiastic about Pre-K funding but much less supportive of child care subsidies, even though the two issues are often intertwined. In fact, Askins said, some lawmakers were not aware that early child care services were already being provided inside Pre-K centers. “Nearly 50% of the preschool services in Pennsylvania are actually being implemented in child care centers,” Askins said. “That causes a problem when subsidies for preschoolers means that a preschool teacher in a facility is getting paid much more than an infant or toddler caregiver in that same facility.”

Barber further explained the existing focus on Pre-K funding was turning 0-3 child care into a battle against Pre-K. “There wasn’t enough money for everybody, and that created a competition between centers serving higher-income families who had to pay for their own child care and centers that were getting more subsidies for preschoolers. Some high-quality providers actually went out of business because of that competition,” Barber said. This is one of the reasons the Start Strong PA initiative chose to focus on infants and toddlers. 

Barber suggests that advocates need to arm themselves with data and facts before they meet with their legislators. Furthermore, the issue needs to have local importance for those legislators. “They need to understand not just the data around your issue, but how it affects them and their constituents.” Askins added, “It really is about who they run into at the dry cleaners on the weekend. The data has to come from their own district, from the people who elect them.” 

Start Strong PA leaders learned many lessons from their Pre-K work. Not only have they solidified their relationships with certain legislators, but they have also worked on developing relationships with business leaders who are willing to meet directly with legislators. “Those business people can go in and say the words that will impact a legislator in a different way,” Askins said.

Both Askins and Barber emphasized that the success of Pennsylvania’s nonprofit coalition was not an overnight phenomenon. Organizations had been working together for decades, learning lessons, and revising strategies. If the Start Strong initiative is successful, it will be due to all the work that has come before it. “The success and momentum of all these years are what has moved this work forward,” Askins noted.

External Reading

For more information, contact: 

  • Jen DeBell, executive director, Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children (PennAEYC), 
  • Diane Barber, executive director, Pennsylvania Child Care Association (PACCA),
  • Nelida Sepulvida, Early Childhood Education Policy Director, Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY),
  • Simon Workman, director of Early Childhood Policy, American Progress,