Methods: In a Midwestern town in 2013, 38 of the 125 private EC centers and public elementary schools serving 4-year-olds were sampled. The 38 were selected in three geographic clusters; within each, 2 pre-K providing, demographically comparable schools and another randomly-chosen 11 to 18 sites from the other 3 types were recruited. At each site, one parent per 4-year old was surveyed (40% response rate, final n=240). Of 153 willing, we selected 29 parents for interviews after stratifying by parent demographic traits, and interviewed 24. Analyses used SPSS for ANOVA means testing of survey data and Dedoose for interview data.
Findings: Parents across the four program types had distinct employment and family circumstances. Public pre-K in private EC centers was on average utilized significantly more hours (36 weekly vs. 16 in the pre-K schools and 32 in the other sites), and the most often for early morning coverage. These parents rated number of, and which, available days and hours significantly more important for program selection than other parents. In interviews, they often appreciated their children’s receiving pre-K experience through full day care, though most supplemented care with kith and kin. These parents were significantly lower income, more often single-parenting, greater users of general public assistance and child care subsidy, and less white than parents at other sites. Parents in the opted-out sites also reported demanding jobs, using on average the most care days among those surveyed (4.9), significantly more variable work schedules, and greater evening work; however they also had the highest average household incomes and typically an employed partner, using little supplemental care. Parents from the school-based sites were on average significantly more flexible in their care timing needs while typically adding other care; they were also more often middle or upper income. Those using non-qualified programs fell in between in these work and family dynamics.
Implications: A hybrid public pre-K initiative appears to have stratified family participation by parents’ work and socioeconomic conditions, existing alongside two other forms of center care – an elite group of highly credentialed, “opting out” programs with well-resourced parents in demanding jobs, and diverse parents using less-credentialed care. We review strategies for EC policies and program practices to smooth family diversity across sites.