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Why Some Kentucky Child Care Centers Don't Want State Ratings

Pam Rice visits one of several classrooms at the Neighborhood House.

The Cornerstone Child Development Center in St. Matthews was in a flurry of activity one weekday last month. In one room kids shot hoops, and missed. Others played on an indoor slide. In another room, kids listened as a staff member read a book.

"We have a very good program here,” said director Bridget Yates.

Child care has expanded beyond keeping their kids occupied during the workday.

Early childhood, starting with infancy, is a critical time for development, an increasing number of studies show. How well a kid does in these earliest years can correlate to better health and education success later in life.

Searching for quality child care can be tough, especially if parents and families don’t know what to look for. Often they'll make their decisions based on location, price or word of mouth, child care advocates said.

The state is now trying to make choosing easier for Kentucky families and to set child care centers on a path toward improvement.

In August, the state will require child care providers that accept the subsidy for low-income working families to participate in a rating system called, STARS for Kids Now.

Why Some Kentucky Child Care Centers Don't Want State Ratings

The rating system, which is currently voluntary, measures the quality of child care based on a number of factors, such as staff-to-children ratios and what resources the facility offers.

But some Kentucky centers—including Cornerstone—are choosing to stop accepting the Child Care Assistance Program subsidy payments.

"With the new changes we will now have to turn those families away. And we’re just uncomfortable with how that feels," said Yates.

There is currently only one family using CCAP being served by Cornerstone, which is common for child care centers choosing not to participate in STARS, said Mary Beth Jackson, director of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services child care division.

“The reasons vary, but the primary reason is the provider had planned on closing their doors anyway or retiring," she said. "Or the other reason is a provider may only have one or two children in their entire center that are on the subsidy program."

There are 2,433 child care providers in the state. Of those, 1,531 centers (63 percent) accept families using CCAP. And of those, 545 (around one-third) currently participate in the STARS program.

Now, around 6 percent have already chosen to opt out of the STARS program—and to stop accepting the subsidy payments, said Jackson.

No One Wants to Be a '1-Star Center'

Cornerstone has places to play. Spaces are well lit. At least one room even has its own bathroom, which Yates said would get them points on environmental assessments in the STARS program.

But she also points to windows that don’t open and building structures that would have to be physically changed to score higher; these are things she said that the center can't really control at this point.

Yates said she doesn’t like the perception of a low STAR rating.

"I think everyone thinks about it like a hotel or like a restaurant, and no one wants to be a one-star child care center," she said.

Plus, Cornerstone is working on getting accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a rating system Yates and others called more strenuous, albeit more expensive, than STARS.

Quality Child Care Costs

Last year, the General Assembly allotted more money to the Child Care Assistance Program to allow more families to participate. The program suffered deep cuts the year before, and advocates said many working parents were forced to quit jobs or use "underground," or unregulated, child care. Meanwhile, some child care center operators dealt with the loss of business as thousands of families lost the ability to pay for child care.

CCAP enrollment has expanded since the additional funds were allotted, but now those centers have decisions to make regarding the STAR system.

It may take some investment to move up in the STAR rating system, but how much isn't clear. The state says there's no cost analysis for the program because it largely depends on how much child care staff are being paid—and that varies from center to center, Jackson said.

But some think it's unfair to move forward so quickly with mandating STARS without knowing how much of a burden it may place on some centers.

“There’s nobody in the right mind that disagrees with having good childcare ... but it’s really hard to provide high quality for low-income kids,” said Susan Vessels, the recently retired director of Community Coordinated Child Care, or 4Cs, an advocacy group that works on behalf of hundreds of child care centers in Jefferson County.

“If you have really good quality teachers you’re going to have a good quality program. But you have to pay them," she said.

The largest cost for quality child care is paying quality employees to look after children, and having the right ratios so children get the attention they need, said Vessels.

It can be difficult to earn the STARS system's highest rating—in fact, Louisville has no four-star programs.

Two centers that had reached four stars have closed, she said.

At the same time, state officials say it takes very little to participate in the STARS program. A center must fill out a form and allow the state to perform an onsite evaluation—all for free.

The cabinet does expect many one-star centers at the onset, but "that gets them in," said Jackson. "It gets them acclimated to the system and it really allows the programs to continue on a path to quality.”

Earning Higher Ratings

The real question is what it'll cost to move beyond a one-star.

Under current state policy, a child care center are supposed to up from a one-star rating in the STARS program after two years. Whether that policy will change officials couldn't say, but a review is underway on the indicators measuring what makes a center meet the various star levels. A pilot program is likely to take place that would try out any changes the cabinet seeks to adopt, officials said.

At the child development center at Neighborhood House in Portland, executive director Pam Rice said when her center considered doing what was needed to move from a two-star to a three-star rating. But, she said, financial constraints would lead to difficult decisions.

"We’ve said we could pour more onto those fewer kids, but then you’ve got kids you’re not serving. So, we have been in that dilemma of, OK, if we go to three-stars we’re going to serve fewer kids," she said.

Neighborhood House is among the quarter of Jefferson County child care facilities that voluntarily participate in the STARS rating program, said Vessels. By August 2015, hundreds more facilities that rely on families using state subsidies to operate will have to join the rank.

Many centers seem uneasy and unsure about what to expect.

State officials are hopeful that centers will discover ways—perhaps with state and federal grant assistance—to move up in the STARS system and to continue on the "path to quality."

At the same time, if STARS is to become a tool used and widely recognized by parents, Jackson and other child care center representatives have said more education is needed about what the program is and why it's important.