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Facing the severe shortage of day care centers for children, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has proposed increasing the total budget for child rearing to ¥110 billion. But if the experience in the United States is any guide, the 8,466 children on waiting lists in the capital need more than additional facilities to derive the full benefits.

A survey by the U.S. National Institute of Child Health Development found the majority of operations to be “fair” or “poor.” Just 10 percent provided high quality care. Only one-third of children were in settings that met the ratio of one caregiver for every three infants between the ages of 6 months and 18 months.

Equally troubling was that providers in most states needed minimal or no training in safety, health or child development. Low salaries acted as a disincentive in recruiting and retaining those with more education.

If Tokyo wants to avoid this situation, it has to make the work far more attractive. That begins with higher salaries but also with higher standards to qualify. Making it easier to establish new facilities in order to reach the goal of 12,000 is counterproductive because quantity is no guarantee of quality.

In this regard, both Japan and the U.S. need to look to France as a model. Day care there is a top priority, although a creche spot is not guaranteed. Parents who elect to stay at home with their children or hire their own caregivers are granted generous tax breaks. Overall, France earmarks about 1 percent of its gross domestic product to child care. That may help explain why 80 percent of French women work.

If Japan is not financially willing to go that far, it can turn child care centers into preschools. The benefits of high-quality early education have been well documented, although the definition varies widely from one country to another.

There is evidence that Japan already knows how to do so. For example, older children at the Komatsudani Child Care Center in Kyoto spend an hour each afternoon caring for babies and toddlers. The interaction teaches children ways of thinking and acting that are valued by their culture.

Despite the importance of high-quality day care centers and nursery schools, however, low pay and a thicket of government regulations have resulted in some 760,000 qualified nursery school teachers leaving the field. Their departure is understandable. Nursery teachers made ¥219,200 a month, including overtime, in 2015. That was 34 percent less than the industry average of ¥333,300. At last count, there were about five openings for each applicant, according to the welfare ministry.

Japan has a unique opportunity to combine the benefits of child care with those of preschool. But success will largely depend on its commitment to professionalizing the two, rather than treating them as glorified baby-sitting. Proper oversight can make both goals a reality. But tradition dies hard.

The closest the U.S. has come to this ideal is New York City, which spends $10,200 per student to enroll more children in full-day pre-kindergarten than any state except Georgia. Teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree. They receive tutoring and support from social workers.

Parents like what they see so far, with 92 percent rating their own child’s experience as good or excellent. To continue to be worthy of their support, New York City continuously collects and analyses data to inform practices. Whether Japan is open to emulating New York at this crossroads is the real question.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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