Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Baby steps in L.A. lead to big leaps toward better child care

Quality rating systems for child care are all the rage in the states. Hailed as systemic approaches to improving the quality of care, 14 states have some version of a rating program. Wisconsin is one of the states that does not have a rating system, as both attempts to initiate one via our state's budgeting process have failed. Unlike in California, which also lacks a statewide system, no local governments in Wisconsin have decided to address the problem on their own.

Last year Los Angeles County decided not to wait for California to act and established a Policy Roundtable for Child Care, which developed a local quality rating system. The Steps to Excellence Project, or STEP, was launched on July 1, 2007, funded by $200,000 per year from the county, plus tobacco tax revenue and revenue from child-care related state contracts. The county decided that because the state was not moving fast enough and because California's child care licensing system reduced the frequency of on-site reviews from annually to every five years, something had to be done locally to provide an incentive for quality improvements.

STEP is being characterized as taking baby steps toward higher quality by providing small incentives for incremental improvements to close the gap between minimum licensing standards and accreditation. Less than 10% of the 3,000 licensed child care centers in L.A. County are accredited.

Nine communities in the county are piloting the project for the next three years and the hopes are it will become county-wide after that. It is a voluntary program for child care providers, aimed at both child care centers and family providers. It focuses on research-based standards and best practices and is aligned with state regulations and national accrediting bodies' requirements. Most importantly, training, technical assistance, and fiscal support are available.

The child care providers are rated on various standards, which are grouped into the following categories: regulatory compliance, teacher-child relationships, the learning environment, identification and inclusion of children with special needs, staff qualifications and working conditions, and family and community connections. There are five steps within each standard, ranging from step 1--meeting state licensing requirements, to step 3--meeting state educational codes, to step 5--meeting national accreditation standards.

During the first year the county will provide grants up to $5,000 to fund quality improvements directly related to STEP standards. The nine participating local municipalities have the option of supplementing this effort and the City of Santa Monica has taken up the challenge.

In 1980 the City of Santa Monica established an independent child care task force and in 1991 they issued a child care master plan. Since then the city has annually funded $700,000 in child care subsidies for low and moderate income families, plus some additional subsidies to colleges and non-profits who operate child care facilities. This subsidy program had been paying the full costs of tuition for eligible families, but rising child care costs meant fewer families could partake. Once STEP was created, the city saw an opportunity to tie reimbursement rates to quality, with families choosing higher quality care eligible for larger subsidies. In addition, the city makes small grants directly to centers to help them make improvements to meet STEP standards.

These quality rating systems are not inexpensive; even if they are voluntary and the incentive merely a mini-grant, performing the reviews is costly and time-intensive. It is a difficult balance to perform the reviews as affordably as possible while still being effective. Achieving this balance is what delays many states that are pondering a quality rating system. The experience of L.A. County tells us that taking local baby steps is one way to get beyond the inertia preventing a new statewide program. In the case of Santa Monica, those small steps allowed the municipality to leap beyond their current practices and expand their impact.

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