ECCE workforce, as well as benefits, working conditions, training, education, and opportunities for advancement, are important for this group—as they are for workers in any occupation or industry. Blau observed that although these workers have special importance because of the influence they have on children, in the United States our society relies largely on market forces to determine the quantity in which care is available, its quality, and its price. As the ECCE field considers how to craft policies that improve access, availability, and quality of care, researchers need to understand the market factors that affect how parents select or change their care arrangements.
Demand in the early childhood market is a function of how parents select their child care arrangements. Many factors affect these decisions. Parents’ beliefs, preferences, income levels, and constraints (e.g., working hours or transportation) all influence their willingness and ability to purchase child care at alternative prices. Parents will consider the type of care arrangement (e.g., center, family child care, nanny); the developmental quality of the care arrangement; and its convenience and reliability. From an economic perspective, the key point is their willingness to substitute different types and quality of care arrangements in response to different prices. Thus, supply of education and care encompasses the full range of types of care available, even if these types are regulated, funded, or viewed separately by those in the field. Evidence suggests, Blau explained, that parents have a “moderate willingness to substitute” (Blau and Hagy, 1998). In other words, parents are not ready to abandon a care arrangement in response to a small increase in price, but as the price of developmentally appropriate and stimulating care increases relative to alternatives, they are willing to make trade-offs.
The supply of child care, in turn, is influenced by what economists call the “technology” of producing the care and the prices of the inputs— primarily the cost of employing staff with particular levels of skill and qualifications. These factors affect providers’ willingness to offer child care at alternative prices according to quality, type, and location. A key aspect of supply is the degree of flexibility of the technology: Is there more than one way to produce a given level of quality of child care? Blau indicated that considerable flexibility exists in this field: “Must you have, for example, a director with a master’s degree in early childhood education, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree, an assistant with a certain level of education and training, a group size of a defined level, and a child/ staff ratio” in order to provide child care of high developmental quality? Observational studies that compare child care centers that all meet certain defined levels of quality have shown that they meet these levels in a variety of ways, Blau explained (Blau, 1997, 2000). International comparisons reinforce this point. In France, for example, the child care system is