At first, Dawn Blalock didn’t want to switch to Ohio’s five-star rating system for daycares.
She had been a program director at Little Miracles Early Childhood Development Center in Columbus for nearly a decade and felt proud of the work she had done. Now the state was saying she had to turn things around and go through all that paperwork to earn a single star.
“We were really reluctant because we didn’t understand it,” said Blalock.
However, she got involved because the Step-Up to Quality star system adopted in 2012 would become mandatory by 2020 for any establishment accepting children in the Government funded child care program. And all of Blalock’s children received this state aid.
“Once we started taking the steps, it changed the whole framing structure of how we operate as a business,” she said. “We do regular assessments. We do development screenings. We hire senior teachers with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. “
Basically, she thinks Step-Up to Quality has helped prepare her kids for kindergarten.
That’s important because 28% of all economically disadvantaged children in Franklin County passed their kindergarten readiness tests in 2018, according to the Ohio Early Childhood Race and Rural Equity Report. Conversely, 60% of children from wealthy households passed these exams.
The program is a winner in Blalock’s eyes, but it’s a problem in the mind of Senate Speaker Matt Huffman, R-Lima.
He believes all the hurdles star-rated establishments face exacerbate Ohio’s shortage of child care services and push back quality providers. He believes that the payment increases granted by Step-Up for each new star could present a $ 1 billion budget problem over the next decade. And Huffman thinks the ratings don’t influence how most parents shop for child care.
Thus, he abandoned a legal change in the Senate version of the Ohio biennial budget that would remove the star mandate. Establishments would still be paid extra to earn stars, but those that didn’t could accept public assistance children.
Before the pandemic, it was difficult to find child care services that could take your child. Now he has reached this experts describe as a full-fledged crisis.
“We have 2,000 jobs available within a ten mile radius of Lima,” said Joe Patton, director of the Allen County Office of Employment and Family Services. “The problem is that there are currently few childcare services.
He tells parents with multiple children that they have to go to three separate facilities if they want slots for their three children. Part of that is the pandemic, but Patton is convinced the other part is Step-Up to Quality.
In September, it became mandatory for suppliers accepting state dollars to have at least one star. By 2025, they’ll need three stars. And he saw dozens of providers leave.
“We had 60 eligible vendors in 2012,” Patton said. “Now we’re at 17.”
It is the facilities for moms and dads that are disappearing, he said. Home care places for 20 or 30 years are given to someone (usually a woman of color) who does not have a formal diploma in early childhood education. Or the church’s nursery school with a small army of volunteers.
“These women will tell you, ‘My children can read better than the school children in the city of Lima,” Huffman said. But they can’t afford the degrees and / or they don’t have time for the paperwork.
This is the decision taken by Andrea Stout. She runs a preschool and childcare center called Learning tree in Lima. His church congregation raised money for a few scholarships, but the rest of their welfare children were turned away.
The other problem Huffman sees with the Step-Up to Quality program is rising costs.
His staff have estimated that the total cost of the state-funded child care program will increase by 80% from 2021 to 2025 – leaving Ohio on the hook for $ 641.8 million more than it pays today by 2024.
The federal government may cover some of those costs, but Huffman said the state shouldn’t base its financial plans on that hope.
He couldn’t estimate how much Ohio would save by making stars optional again. It depends on the number of non-participating centers approved to accommodate children.
Senators will debate the child care provision and others over the next few weeks and likely make other changes before the June 30 deadline to pass a budget.
Increasing access to child care is great, said Shannon Jones, a former Republican state senator who heads Ohio Preparatory Work. But what’s the point if you have to sacrifice quality?
A recent analysis of University of Cincinnati Center for Economics found that quality child care and early childhood education increased high school graduation rates while reducing the need for public assistance, criminal justice and other social services.
“The cost savings of reduced involvement in the criminal justice system alone cover the cost of expanding access to quality child care more than 2.5 times”, according to the interpretation of the report by Groundwork.
If paperwork is the problem, we should find a way to fix it, said Joy Bivens, director of employment and family services for Franklin County. If it’s a money issue for the centers, we should help them pay for the upgrades.
That is what his county commissioners did. They invested $ 4 million to help county daycares earn their stars.
“It’s hard for me not to view this as a racial fairness issue,” Bivens said. “Seventy-three percent of our African American children weren’t ready for kindergarten… We hurt families if we say it’s no longer necessary.”
And that’s what keeps Blalock from sleeping at night.
She grew up in the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus and knows what it’s like to feel like the bridge is stacked against you. She understands why parents sit in her parking lot while their kids have dinner.
“We are breaking down generational barriers. We are preparing these children to become financially stable and stable active adults,” said Blalock. “Please don’t devalue these lives.”
Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal, and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.