Public Policy

The problem The solution The steps
Today, two thirds of Romania’s at-risk 3-5 year-old children are not receiving any formal early education (to compare, 77% of children born in more affluent families are enrolled in early education programs). Later in life, this leads to long-lasting negative consequences, including setbacks in brain development and increased dropout rates. Improve the chances for children born into poverty to succeed in, and therefore stay in school, by using conditional cash transfers, in which the parents of children under the poverty line receive 50 lei per month in food coupons (tichete sociale) if their child attends preschool daily. OvR’s Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță (FCG) has been using this approach successfully since 2010. In the short to medium term, OvR fundraises to cover the cost of food coupons; in this stage, program costs are covered entirely by private sources. OvR gradually shifts the responsibility of the food coupons cost to, in the first phase, county budgets and, by 2020, when the program becomes national, to the state budget.

Current context—a significant number of poor children don’t benefit from early education

According to a World Bank report, 77% of Romania’s children are enrolled in kindergarten, with the enrollment high-risk children reaching only 37% (source). All across Romania, children from the poorest quartile of the population enter school without the most basic literacy skills (such as, the ability to identify 10 letters of the alphabet). These children enter the educational system far behind their peers and are unable to ever catch up.

Romania has 4.11 million children under age 18. With a dropout rate of 17.4% (source) 710.000 Romanian children can be expected to drop out of school before ninth grade over the next 20 years—unless this waste of human capital is averted by a comprehensive national action.

The solution begins with quality early education. The skills gulf is not just a problem for the poor; it creates a social and economic burden that must be borne by all the members of society.

Conditional cash transfers—an innovative, internationally-recognized solution

Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs provide money to poor families contingent on adopting certain behavioral requirements, like improving children’s school attendance or increasing the number of visits to health clinics. The World Bank has published several articles (here and here) and research papers (here) on the effectiveness of CCTs.

In Romania, mandatory education does not begin before the age of six. Developing pro-education behavior by conditioning food coupons based on children’s attendance is a pragmatic intervention that:

  1. engages poor parents with a low education level,
  2. covers some of the hidden costs inherent to education, and
  3. improves the family’s basic nutrition.

Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță—a program created for national implementation

Current reach: This school year, FCG supports 2,200 children in over 40 communities from 11 counties. The program has proven its effectiveness through the growing number of disadvantaged 3-5-year-old children who are enrolled in kindergarten and keep monthly attendance. In the 2013-2014 school year, 69% of the communities’ poorest children attended preschool daily—this is by far the highest regular attendance ever recorded in these communities.

The next level: Implementing a government-funded scale-up of FCG in all non-urban communities is predicated on eliminating a number of obstacles:

Obstacle Solution
The Social Assistance Law 292/2011 is incomplete in establishing the methodology for allocating food coupons. In March 2015, OvR introduced a bill in Parliament that would clear the legal framework and allow public authorities to allocate funds toward food coupons. The Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Education support the enactment of this bill.
Monitoring preschool attendance is currently not mandatory. As a result, in most rural communities, attendance numbers are missing completely or are typically inflated. In the communities where FCG is implemented, OvR is involving School Inspectorates in monitoring preschool attendance and motivating teachers to make disadvantaged children’s education a priority. Ultimately, monitoring kindergarten attendance should become the legal norm.
Local jurisdictions that want and need the implementation of FCG might not have the financial resources to assume program costs. Conditional incentives in the form of vouchers are under discussion in various EU funded programs. Early education programs for poor children have been included among funding priorities within the European Structural Funds for 2014-2020.
School inspectorates at the county level might not have enough trained staff to implement FCG. The program can be implemented by already employed teachers, social workers and school mediators, and coordinated by the school principal. Further investment in teacher training, program administration, and more social workers—all of which can be accessed with the support of EU funds or Romanian NGOs—will augment program outcomes.

Implementation costs and benefit—€20.4 million/year in investment costs would yield €1 billion/year in productivity and tax revenues 

At a cost of €170child/year, which includes food coupons, school supplies and adequate clothes and shoes, we’re estimating that €20.4 million/year would allow all 120,000 impoverished children age 3-5 in Romania to benefit from quality early education.

According to the World Bank, Romania would gain one billion euros per year in productivity and tax revenues if its poorest citizens, more often than not, of Roma descent, were better educated. For instance, according to the same World Bank report, better educated Roma can expect much higher earnings compared to Roma with primary education; in Romania, those who complete secondary education can expect to earn 144% more.