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A systemic effort to provide quality child care

Good public policy can improve outcomes for children. That’s the lesson of EdNC’s May Consider it Mapped of quality child care centers and homes by county. Unlike housing stability and school safety, the distribution of lower quality child care does not map to areas of higher poverty. In fact, programs rated as having better quality (3-5 stars) were distributed evenly across low and high poverty areas.

This did not happen by chance; it is the result of groundbreaking systems policy — the kind that made North Carolina the nation’s early childhood pioneer.

In the early 1990s North Carolina had some of the lowest standards in the nation. To work as a teacher in a child-care center, one had to be 18 and not guilty of “moral turpitude.” The early childhood system (or lack thereof) needed a serious overhaul. Early childhood advocates and policymakers have worked together over the last 25 years to strategically and incrementally build a system with quality at its foundation, using an approach that marries incentives and requirements.

We began with the workforce

Starting in 1990 with the release of the state’s first early childhood workforce study, it was clear that if quality was to be improved, we had to create strategies to improve the education, compensation, and retention of the workforce. Within government, this work began under Governor Jim Martin. Working collaboratively, the NC Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Community Colleges created the NC Child Care Credential, a basic 4-credit course that could provide foundational knowledge to teachers and family child-care providers working in the field. The course would be the first toward an associate degree in early childhood education.

At the same time, there was a statewide effort starting to provide comprehensive scholarships to early childhood teachers, an effort that is now a national model used by 25 states. Created by North Carolina’s Child Care Services Association, T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® provided scholarships to teachers to help pay part of the costs of tuition, books, and travel. Their employers helped as well, providing some paid time-off and a bonus or a raise. When they received their raise, they promised to stay another year, reducing turnover. In 1993, only 28 of the 58 community colleges offered an early childhood education associate degree; by 1998 all 58 community colleges did. And the growth of universities who offer bachelor’s degree in early childhood education has been similar.

We worked together

At the same time, North Carolina had a fledgling rated license. With two tiers, “A” and “AA,” centers and homes could voluntarily raise their standards. When they achieved the “AA” rating, they were eligible for a slightly higher subsidy payment rate. Building on this framework, the Division of Child Development, with lots of input from the field, redesigned the license into a five-tiered rating system, known as star-licenses.

Today, half of a program’s score is based on the formal education of the staff and the other half is based on overall program quality, including staff/child ratios, group size, space, and a score on Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scales. The star-system is now embedded in every early childhood funding initiative.

What made the star-system work in improving quality was Smart Start. Smart Start leveraged its dollars and its policies to help improve quality across the state. Smart Start has local partnerships serving all 100 North Carolina counties.

Focusing on the child-care workforce, Smart Start local partnerships helped to purchase the initial staffing resources to support the increased enrollment in local community colleges. Funds were used to encourage teachers to go back to school through the use of salary supplements (Child Care WAGE$). Smart Start also focused on program quality, using its resources to help programs buy needed indoor and outdoor equipment, in exchange for technical support.

The most important decision Smart Start made was to create county-based standards to which local partnerships were held accountable. Each Smart Start local partnership was measured on the percent of children in their communities attending high-quality programs. They were held accountable not only for all children in child care, but specifically children with disabilities and children from low-income families.

North Carolina’s child-care resource and referral (R&R) system also played a key role in ensuring all children had access to high-quality child care. Through the resource and referral system, families were given information on how to select quality child care and were referred to programs with openings. Furthermore, R&R’s professional development staff provided standardized trainings to help all programs meet and maintain licensure. Technical assistance staff, both in the local R&Rs and Smart Start partnerships, were available to help programs start up and then advance their stars. Special efforts were made in the R&R system to address the needs of children with challenging behaviors and infants and toddlers. These efforts used highly trained consultants who work in centers and homes to help improve practice.

We incentivized quality

Child care subsidy – funds that help low-income working parents afford child care – were a critical tool in improving child care quality across the state. With the full implementation of the star-system, the amount of funds a child care program received for subsidy were tied to the number of stars a program had, providing an economic incentive for programs to advance their stars. In addition, Smart Start provided higher rates for better programs, often filling in gaps between what the state paid and the “real” market rates. And Smart Start partnerships began to say they would only buy child care with their subsidy dollars in 3-5 star programs, again leveraging quality.

The final big systemic addition to the early childhood system came in early 2000, with the development of a state-funded pre-kindergarten program, originally known as More at Four, now as NC Pre-K. The beauty of this system was that about half of the pre-k slots were to be delivered in licensed child-care centers, and the requirements for those classrooms were high. Centers had to have at least 4-stars and be working toward 5-stars. Teachers had to have a bachelor’s degree with a birth to kindergarten license. Better staff/child ratios were required, as were curriculum and assessment standards. Along with standards came higher reimbursement rates to child-care programs for the participating pre-k children. Centers who had NC Pre-K classrooms saw their overall quality improve as well. And NC Pre-K classrooms, just like child care subsidy funds, were distributed in a targeted way across all counties, with some priority given to counties with a high proportion of poor children.

As the legislature became more aware of the importance of quality for young children who have risk factors often linked to school failure, they made a big policy decision in 2011. Following the path set by Smart Start and NC Pre-K, they passed a law that said child care subsidy dollars could only be used in 3-5 star programs. This decision was really important in forcing programs who had resisted improvements up until then, to either get to work to earn at least three stars or no longer serve children receiving subsidies.

Throughout this 25-year history, the pattern of linking incentives with mandates is clear. Equally important, the existing systems have worked to weave the pieces together in a way that allows for a pathway for child-care providers to improve and to reward them when they do. Each step has built strategically on preceding efforts. And slowly and incrementally, it has meant that all NC’s young children, including its poorest, are better able to access higher quality early childhood programs across the state.

Sue Russell

Sue Russell is the executive director of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® National Center.