November 15, 2010

Our Kids Are Not for Sale

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The campus debate over the performance and future of the Cornell Child Care Center raises much deeper questions about the relationship between corporate, for-profit child care providers and not-for-profit institutions of higher education. You can see why universities like Cornell — MIT and Duke are other prominent examples — are swayed by the slick sales pitches of these corporate giants (Bright Horizons Family Solutions, Inc., one of the largest U.S.-based for-profit childcare company, runs approximately 600 centers worldwide). They promise an off-the-shelf product that’s ready to go on day one of operations. The university need only provide the facility while the company supplies everything else — the training, staff, curriculum, and, perhaps most importantly, the liability coverage if things go wrong. What could be so bad?

It turns out, quite a lot! Let’s start with the corporate structure and ethos that these child care chains import into the university setting. In the commercial culture of these businesses, it’s the company first, the university second and the parents third. Children are the industry currency. Corporations like Bright Horizons speak a strange language of “products” and “clients” that is largely foreign to higher education communities outside of business schools and applied economics departments. (If you are wondering who these “clients” are, well, it’s not the families or even the children. In all cases, it’s whoever signed the contract, which is the relevant administrative unit of the university.)

Let’s turn to the profit motive. Like all businesses, the large child care chains can only survive if they generate revenue in excess of their costs. The business model requires opening ever more centers to acquire additional revenue through management fees. All too often, the result is a sales pitch that overpromises and then underdelivers after the contract is signed. How can universities afford these large management fees? By cutting back on the budget for care. (At the CCCC, the teacher-student ratio meets only the New York state minimum, not the best-practice ratios in place at the top non-profit child care centers in Ithaca.)

Naturally, a company that is worth over a billion dollars (Bright Horizons was acquired by Bain Capital in 2007 for $1.3 billion) and earns tens of millions of dollars in annual profit has to be worried about lawsuits. Enter the Corporate Lawyer or, more accurately, the team of lawyers who are employed to protect profits and assets. That means devising rules and policies at corporate headquarters that are implemented on a company-wide basis, with little regard paid to local needs or distinctiveness. In fact, many everyday operational decisions, especially when problems arise in a classroom with a child, cannot be taken by the local management team without a consultation with a company lawyer. The result is a rule-bound and non-communicative management structure, in which teachers are too often treated as cogs in a corporate child care machine and parents as potential litigants with whom information about their own children should not necessarily be shared.

The role of parents in the governance of for-profit centers is more ambiguous but just as problematic. Unlike cooperative models where parents are actively involved in center operations (including evaluating the management team), parents at for-profit child care centers are relegated to committees that plan bake sales and pajama parties. What this means for the university is that parents do not acquire strong attachments to the center, and they do not commit to development projects, engage in long-range planning or provide input to develop distinctive local curricula. Given that such activities are prized at universities in general, where decision making is democratic and oriented to long-term goals, the for-profit child care center is out of place.

Finally, university contracts with big business child care chains mean that capital that could be used to enrich the local community is sent out of the county and right into corporate bank accounts. Even worse, in outsourcing the management of our child care center to Bain Capital-Bright Horizons, Cornell has created a campus program that competes directly with long-standing and well-respected childcare institutions in the Ithaca community. This competition has already had an adverse effect on the local childcare sector. Witness the closure of the Ithaca Area Childcare Center, which shut down earlier this year after Cornell declined a request for financial assistance.

This is the model of child care that President Skorton has chosen to embrace for Cornell, ignoring the recommendations of the Faculty Senate and the University Assembly’s Childcare Services Subcommittee while at the same time rejecting non-profit, parent-cooperative child care providers based in Ithaca with a proven track record of providing excellent care and early childhood education to the local community.

Prof. Sydney Van Morgan, sociology, is the former co-chair of the Parent Advisory Committee at the Cornell Child Care Center. She may be contacted at [email protected] Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Sydney Van Morgan