What if you could find a five-star day care as easily as you can locate a five-star restaurant?
That’s a goal for some early childhood advocates in Georgia, who argue that the state needs to create a ranking system like those offered in some other Southeastern states such as Tennessee and North Carolina.
Commonly called “quality improvement systems,” these programs use stars or other benchmarks to help parents identify the best and worst day cares.
Holly Robinson, commissioner of the state Department of Early Care and Learning (also called Bright from the Start), said the state plans to pilot a quality improvement program this summer. But its features will be different from those in other states, she said.
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Education First, a Bibb County nonprofit that arose from a Chamber of Commerce initiative, campaigned for Georgia to adopt a ranking system five years ago.
“We can do a golden spatula restaurant review and tell you not to eat somewhere, but we can’t tell you where it’s not safe to leave your children?” asked Cyndey Busbee, who chaired the Education First early childhood committee. “We said Bibb wanted to be the test case for a star system.”
She and Julie Moore, president of Education First, said a series of state day-care licensing officials have endorsed the rating system idea, but no one has acted on it.
In April, an Early Childhood Education Commission, created by United Way of Metro Atlanta and headed by prominent business leaders, made broad recommendations for improving the state’s day-care quality.
Dennis Lockhart, co-chairman of the commission and CEO of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, said a rating system to help parents select quality day care — with financial incentives for great performance — was a priority.
Although officials who oversee Georgia day cares had said they were close to rolling out a color-coding system for rating day cares three years ago, Robinson said she put that plan on hold. She said she wanted more research about Georgia day-care quality first. Since then, the state commissioned a study by the University of North Carolina that found two-thirds of infant and toddler care in the state is low quality.
Quality improvement systems are believed to do just that — improve day-care options broadly. For example, University of Tennessee research showed that when Tennessee first launched its report card and Star Quality program, 31 percent of day cares were rated high quality. Seven years later, 46 percent rated that high.
But Bentley Ponder, a research and evaluation specialist for Bright from the Start, said research has not conclusively linked quality rating systems to child performance. And he noted that many states have struggled with monitoring and accountability for rating systems.
Kelly Maxwell, associate director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, said because most quality rating systems are just reaching the decade mark, there hasn’t been enough time to study their long-term effects.
What other states offer
In most states with ranking systems, participation is voluntary. But there is often a dual incentive for day cares: an edge over their competition and an increase in state reimbursements. States pay for part of the care for low-income children. In Tennessee and North Carolina, higher rated day-care centers receive a higher reimbursement.
“We do believe in a quality rating system that is accompanied by financial incentives,” said Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy organization Voices for Georgia’s Children.
“There’s a great return on investment for state revenues,” she said. “It will pay off in greater school attendance, fewer kids in special education, retention and developing parents’ commitment to education.”
North Carolina is considered the leader in the region for its 10-year-old quality improvement program, which offers from two to five stars to programs that have more educated teachers, regular meetings with parents, more space per child, a high compliance rating, and a ratio of one less child per teacher than the state allows.
Tennessee launched a day-care report card and Star-Quality Child Care Program in 2000 to evaluate day cares. All of them are required to participate in the report card portion, which grades centers on seven areas of compliance. Day cares are required to post their results where parents can see them.
On top of that, day cares can try to achieve from one to three stars, any of which indicate going beyond basic Tennessee standards. One star increases the day care’s state reimbursement by 5 percent, two stars earns a 15 percent increase, and three stars earns a 20 percent increase.
Florida has a Gold Seal Quality Care program which recognizes day cares that meet standards at least as strict as those of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, considered the gold standard for quality. Day-care centers that have had certain types of violations, or repeated minor violations, aren’t eligible.
In Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee, participation in the star or gold seal programs is voluntary.
Georgia program on the way
Robinson said the voluntary aspect is one of several weaknesses she sees in existing programs.
“Not everyone will choose to become involved,” she said. “We want to raise all boats. We don’t just want to raise some.”
Another problem, Robinson said: They are expensive. Some states allocate millions of dollars to cover the elevated reimbursements (although license fees can offset the cost, as in Florida).
Georgia is already strapped for funds, and unlike most states, the department that regulates child care doesn’t control those reimbursements. (The state Department of Human Resources does, through county offices of the Department of Family and Children Services.)
Robinson said a rating program that requires an annual injection of funds from the state Legislature is too unstable, anyway.
“The money is too dependent on one governor or commissioner,” she said. “There’s not a guaranteed continuation.”
And if day-care providers participate for the rewards, they will probably drop out if funding decreases, Robinson said.
For that reason, Robinson said, the state plans to debut a “quality improvement continuum” that will be a required part of state licensing — not voluntary — and that will not include cash rewards for participation.
“What we have tried to do is build incentives into all the different stages of quality improvement,” like scholarships for teachers using federal funds, she said.
She declined to give details about what that would look like, but she said it will include an element that will indicate a level of quality for parents.
Tony Foskey, vice president of the Warner Robins-based Children’s Friend chain, said he supports the idea of a star system, but he fears it will be costly for his clients. He noted that such a change could make it even harder for licensed day cares to compete against the child care settings that don’t have to follow the same regulations, such as small home day cares and federal and half-day programs.
Fear of increasing day-care fees has been a major obstacle to adopting a rating system, said state Rep. Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, who serves on the House Committee on Children and Youth.
“The concern is that if we make it more expensive, people will remove their kids from licensed care” and “go underground” to unreliable providers, said Ashe, who has long campaigned for a star system like North Carolina’s.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.