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Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010

State’s New Ratings System for Child Care Already in Doubt

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The state Department of Children and Families (DCF) got the green light from state legislators to begin implementing YoungStar, its new quality ratings system for child care providers, which will go into full effect on July 1, 2011.

But will this ratings scale actually improve the quality of child care provided around the state?

That’s yet to be determined.

YoungStar, which has been modeled on quality ratings systems used in other states, will be mandatory for providers in the publicly funded Wisconsin Shares program and optional for providers who only care for private-pay children. Any provider in the YoungStar system must agree to care for Wisconsin Shares children.

DCF’s YoungStar rates providers according to their facilities, curriculum, resources and provider education and will cost about $62 million through the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

To attempt to incentivize quality care, Wisconsin Shares subsidies will be tied to a provider’s rating, with more money provided to caregivers who meet higher criteria. A DCF spokeswoman told the Shepherd that a few state employees will be hired to oversee the program, but a consortium of child-focused groups will do the bulk of provider outreach and training. Microgrants will be awarded to providers who want to improve their child care centers or education.

“This is seen as a way to educate child care providers and improve care,” said Stephanie Hayden, spokeswoman for DCF. “We aren’t giving people ratings and then walking away.”

Reform May Hurt Those It Is Intended to Help

But will YoungStar deliver on its promises to improve child care, especially for children from low-income families?

The nonpartisan Public Policy Forum’s (PPF) recently published study, “Moving the Goalposts: The Shift from Child Care Supply to Child Care Quality,” found that YoungStar has consequences—both intentional and unintentional—for day care providers and state government.

PPF found that shifting the focus from ensuring a plentiful supply of day care to quality child care could negatively impact the men and women the Wisconsin Shares program had been developed to help: individuals new to the job market who lacked formal education and advanced job skills.

“There are several impacts that are going to have to be carefully watched as the program is implemented,” Rob Henken, president of PPF, told the Shepherd.

Originally, quality wasn’t on policy-makers’ radar when Wisconsin Works (W2) and the Shares program were created during Gov. Tommy Thompson’s tenure. Wisconsin Shares had been launched to quickly create a large supply of child care providers for the thousands of low-income working parents who suddenly had access to affordable child care. The program expanded so quickly, PPF’s report explains, because it was open not only to W2 participants, but also to other working parents who met the income requirements. When Wisconsin wages stagnated shortly after the program was created, Wisconsin Shares ballooned with eligible working parents.

Since the state focused on quantity and not quality, Wisconsin Shares did not reward providers who had high-quality centers. Providers could earn a living without a formal education or other so-called indicators of quality.

Milwaukee child care provider and AFSCME Local 502 President LaTonya Johnson said that child care experience in the home was used as a much-needed, transferable job skill once the state began subsidizing child care in the 1990s.

“A lot of these people found a way to make a viable living as a child care provider,” Johnson said.

Now, however, 14 of the 44 points in the YoungStar system are linked to education. Johnson said that’s too high and will penalize both home-based providers and group centers that employ a large number of child care workers who are good caregivers but lack education. Johnson contends that YoungStar is a way to force providers out of the Wisconsin Shares program.

“If the state is sincere about improving quality, then they should link [these criteria] to all child care providers, period,” Johnson said.

DCF’s Hayden said YoungStar allows providers to earn points a number of ways besides education, so experienced providers who lack a formal education can be competitive. She added that DCF is providing many educational opportunities and microgrants for Wisconsin Shares participants.

Does It Measure Quality Care?

In addition to penalizing local child care providers who had been the lifeblood of the Wisconsin Shares program, YoungStar may not even measure “quality” at all, according to the Washington Policy Center, a nonpartisan free-market think tank.

According to a letter sent to state legislators by Liv Finne, the Center’s director for education, “Wisconsin’s YoungStar program shares many of the features of other state [quality] programs, and is likely to have the same disappointing results.”

Finne wrote that YoungStar “takes a stern regulatory approach, singling out those providers who should be receiving the most help from the state: providers who serve low-income families.”

Besides being ineffective in measuring and improving quality, the Center’s study of similar programs around the country found that these ratings systems “measure inputs, not actual outcomes for children” and that they’re “expensive and complicated to administer.”

DCF’s Hayden said YoungStar had been developed from pieces of other states’ programs.

“We learned from their mistakes,” she said.

But PPF’s Henken said that the Forum’s ongoing research showed that parents are likely to want a caregiver who is warm or nurturing. Attributes such as a college degree aren’t always a deciding factor for parents. Nor are parents “clamoring for quality improvements,” a previous PPF report found.

At What Cost?

The PPF’s report also warned that the state’s cost of running the program will likely rise as more providers begin earning higher ratings and therefore earn higher subsidies. That’s a net-plus for providers but a drag on an already tight state budget that’s going to get even more dire if Republicans deliver on their promises to slash taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents and corporations.

Earlier research by PPF found that the cost of operating a high-quality center in southeast Wisconsin was estimated to be $11,500 per child—about double the cost of the program today.

“There are many policy conundrums, but essentially one of the biggest—if not the biggest—themes [is that] unless there is a significant decline in the number of participants in Wisconsin Shares, then achieving quality is ultimately likely to require more resources,” Henken said. “That’s sort of a lingering problem and it’s one that the next administration is going to have to confront.”

Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s spokesman did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.

DCF’s Hayden said Walker’s transition team had visited the agency last week and had spoken to high-level managers. DCF’s secretary is a political position (currently held by Reggie Bicha, who had been appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle) and Walker will appoint his own secretary after he takes office on Jan. 3, 2011.