RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And the presidential candidates have sometimes talked about child care. We've been asking voters what they think. A new poll finds most Americans like what they have, even though experts consider child care in this country to be pretty bad. The poll comes from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But NPR's Alison Kodjak reports that quality is not the only thing parents think about.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: When Jolie Ritzo was looking for daycare for her son Canon in Falmouth, Maine, she checked out as many centers as she could.
JOLIE RITZO: It had to have the right feel to me.
KODJAK: And that feel was...
RITZO: Most importantly, just that the people who are providing the care are loving, kind, nurturing, interested in sort of developing these little beings.
KODJAK: There was one center in town that had a great reputation, but...
RITZO: It would completely break the bank.
KODJAK: So she moved on and eventually settled on a place called Little Hands.
RITZO: One of the other reasons that we chose it is just its close proximity to our house and makes sense in terms of our routes.
KODJAK: It cost about $900 a month for Canon to go there four days a week, and it had space. Ritzo's happy with the choice. Canon just started Kindergarten after going to Little Hands for three years, and now her 2-year-old daughter is enrolled.
RITZO: It gives me peace of mind knowing that when I drop my daughter off for the entire day that someone is going to be sort of loving and sweet and nurturing, you know, that will challenge her.
KODJAK: Like most parents, Ritzo says her daycare is high quality. In fact, 88 percent of parents in our poll say their kids' child care is very good or excellent. It's an interesting result because experts in early childhood development say most child care in the U.S. is mediocre to poor. Mary Beth Testa is with the National Association for Family Child Care. She says the quality benchmarks that experts measure aren't always the same as what parents are looking for.
MARY BETH TESTA: People are looking for, do you care about my child? Is my child happy here? How do I regulate whether your child is going to be happy here? It doesn't translate in the same ways.
KODJAK: Groups like hers rate centers on their curriculum, whether their teachers have college degrees, how many kids to a caregiver.
TESTA: There's research to back up the idea that those things are important. The science, you know, says this is what children need in order to thrive. But parents are still looking for price, location and do you love my kid.
KODJAK: Our poll shows that 27 percent of parents say location played a major role in their child care choice - more than any other single factor. Eighteen percent say price. Testa says the average day care costs $6,000 a year, and that's just too much for a lot of parents.
TESTA: If you can't afford it, you can't afford it. And knowing more about the quality doesn't change a fact that you can't afford it.
KODJAK: That's the situation for Jennifer Nuesi, a single mom who responded to our poll and lives in Northport, Fla. Her mother cares for her daughter while she's at work, and she's not happy about it.
JENNIFER NUESI: She is not at all the person that I would like to watch my child.
KODJAK: They disagree on everything, from rules to schedules to diet.
NUESI: My mom just lets her do whatever she wants. Eat whatever you want. Do whatever you want. If you want to go to bed at 12 o'clock at night, that's totally OK.
KODJAK: In the end, though, it's all about money.
NUESI: Unfortunately, she's free, so I can't - I can't find better than that.
KODJAK: Gillian SteelFisher, deputy director of Harvard's Opinion Research, which conducted our poll, says the survey shows parents do want quality child care. More than 70 percent listed at least one quality measure as a reason they chose their current childcare provider.
GILLIAN STEELFISHER: They don't have the information, necessarily, about what experts think. And maybe they would benefit from having that information so that they could actually make more informed choices about what their care should offer and what options they might have available to them.
KODJAK: Two years ago, Congress passed a law that requires child care centers that receive federal funding to meet strong quality standards. But Mary Beth Testa says they didn't actually increase the federal funding enough to help child care centers reach those goals.
TESTA: They're good reforms. They are good ideas. We needed to raise this bar.
KODJAK: But since parents are happy with their childcare, as our poll shows, Testa worries there won't be much pressure on lawmakers to spend tax money to make it better. Alison Kodjak, NPR News.
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