Georgia starting rating system for day cares

hduncan@macon.comOctober 25, 2011 

After six years of study, Georgia is launching a rating system for day cares and Georgia pre-kindergarten programs to help parents identify higher-quality child care.

Day care centers, family home day cares and Georgia pre-K providers will be able to choose whether to participate starting in January. State officials with the Department of Early Care and Learning say their goal is for 700 providers to sign up the first year.

Day cares that earn quality rankings will be eligible for financial incentives, which could range from free training to staff bonuses.

They will also receive increased subsidy payments for the low-income children they serve, said Laura Johns, the department’s director of quality initiatives.

“Centers are very, very excited, because the majority want to do better and they want to be able to give parents information on how they are different from a program that is simply licensed,” Johns said.

A two-month pilot of the program at 28 family home day cares and child care centers (a third of which had Georgia pre-K classrooms) finished Friday, Johns said. None of the pilot locations was in Middle Georgia.

Getting a ranking of good, very good or excellent will require providers to excel in five areas:

the ratio of adults to children and size of classes;

staff qualifications;

child health, nutrition and physical activity;

family partnerships;

learning practices.

For example, as proposed, a “good” provider would have to have one adult supervising every seven toddlers, when the state legally allows as many as eight toddlers per teacher. An “excellent” provider would have one adult for every four toddlers.

Rated day cares would offer parent conferences, and more teachers would be certified in CPR and first aid.

Participating providers must complete a self-study and portfolio, then undergo an observation that will evaluate everything from movement pathways to interactions between teachers and children. Day cares can earn extra points for being accredited by a national accrediting agency.

The ranking process could take from four months to a year for each day care. Johns said 700 is the goal for the first year because that’s the number the state can support with technical assistance, which will be provided through regional child care resource and referral agencies with state contracts. Those agencies now focus on helping child-care providers achieve national accreditation. Now they will focus on enrolling centers in the state ranking system, Johns said.

The on-site observations will be done by the six assessors who work for DECAL. “Best-case scenario, we’ll overwork them and have to hire more,” Johns said. “But that will be a good thing.”

Day cares will have to resubmit an updated portfolio annually to maintain their ranking and receive another on-site evaluation every three years -- or sooner if they seek to improve their ranking, Johns said.

“So far the pilot is working out well,” she said.

The first year, the state will not publish the ratings. That will allow both the state and child-care providers to work through the kinks -- and it gives providers an incentive to jump on board early.

“We anticipate some programs will get rated lower than they’d like to be rated,” Johns said. “We’d like to have a year of technical assistance before this is publicized.”

Starting in 2013, the ratings would be published on the DECAL website.

Now, almost all the day cares with national accreditation in Georgia are clustered in the Atlanta metro area. Johns said that for the quality improvement ranking system, her department will provide technical assistance first to “rural and underserved areas” that serve “high needs children.”

“There will be a targeted effort to focus on programs outside of metro (Atlanta),” she said.

Incentives would be a draw

Incentives for high-performing day cares have not been finalized, but they would likely include free training, grants for purchasing new materials, increased subsidy payments and bonuses. Johns said the incentive program is projected to cost about $10 million during the first three years.

That money would be provided by grants and private foundations. The Georgia Early Alliance for Ready Students has committed to raising the money, said Mindy Binderman, the organization’s executive director.

Part of it could come from federal Race to the Top funds. Georgia just submitted a new grant application for close to $70 million, Johns said. Unlike the $400 million Race to the Top grant Georgia won last year, this application focuses exclusively on “high-needs” children ages 5 and younger.

But if the application fails, GEARS will raise about $15 million -- to cover both the incentives and a public education campaign about day care quality -- from the business and philanthropic communities, Binderman said.

Georgia day care subsidies, which are legally supposed to be adjusted every few years to keep them in line with market costs, have not been increased since 2006.

Two-thirds of all states offer higher subsidy payments to higher-quality day cares, according to a 2009 National Women’s Law Center report.

Previous DECAL Commissioner Holly Robinson had rejected the idea, however, because those subsidies are actually controlled by the Department of Human Resources and can be used for other programs that support working families besides day care. Since the recession, the Georgia Legislature has reduced state DHR funding, and the department has used some of the block grant money to fill in the gaps.

Current DECAL Commissioner Bobby Cagle, who spent much of his career working for the Department of Human Resources, has a close working relationship with DHR Commissioner Clyde Reese.

“I think that both commissioners have given us a real commitment that children receiving subsidy dollars in this state need high quality programs,” Johns said. “And I think they will be committed to working with the Legislature to see that works.”

Increased subsidies won’t kick in for ranked day cares until September 2012 because the block grant fiscal year runs differently, Johns said.

Julie Moore, executive director of the nonprofit Education First in Macon, praised the idea of bonuses and increased subsidies.

“We want better quality teachers and that means they need additional training, and once they get it, they should be paid a little bit more,” she said.

But she noted that it’s risky to rely on the Department of Human Resources’ budget because that may vary so much depending on who is in the Legislature. She said the money should simply be budgeted to DECAL, while acknowledging that may be unlikely.

Tony Foskey, vice president of the Warner Robins-based Children’s Friend day care chain, said he’s cautiously optimistic about the funding.

“I don’t think it’s going to give long-term security, but I’m absolutely impressed with what they’re doing to bring in outside money,” he said.

Participation voluntary

Last year, Robinson said the state was piloting another quality improvement system in the Atlanta area with the intent to roll it out statewide by the end of 2010. At the time, she said all providers would be required to participate and that no monetary incentives would be offered for high performance.

Johns said she is unfamiliar with that initiative and couldn’t say what happened to it.

Cagle said in an e-mail that a voluntary system will be much more readily accepted by child-care providers, and that all successful quality rating systems offer monetary incentives to offset the money that providers spend to improve quality.

But some industry watchers question whether a voluntary program will be as useful to parents or even be truly voluntary at all.

Moore said she wishes participation was required.

“I don’t know that it serves the consumer need if it’s not going to be an easy-to-understand quality rating for every day care facility,” she said.

Foskey, whose company runs 37 day care centers in Georgia (after recently selling off its centers in North Carolina), said he’s not sure all the Children’s Friend centers will participate in the ranking program. But he said the company has already started considering which ones should start working toward it first.

He said he would not be surprised if eventually Georgia stops offering any subsidy payments to unranked day cares.

“It’s voluntary, but it won’t play out that way,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Foskey, a member of the state Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care, praised the quality improvement system concept.

“But my biggest concern is that the incentives be enough to make sense,” he said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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