Ohio Republicans are rewriting the step on childcare quality rules

Dawn Blalock initially didn’t want to switch to Ohio’s five-star rating system for childcare facilities.

She had been a program manager at Little Miracles Early Development Center in Columbus for nearly a decade and was proud of the work she had done. Now the state said it had to change things and submit all this paperwork to earn a single star.

“We were really reluctant because we didn’t get it,” said Blalock.

Nevertheless, she got on board because the Step-Up to Quality star system adopted in 2012 would become mandatory by 2020 for every facility that accepts children in the publicly funded childcare program. And all of Blalock’s children received this state aid.

Dawn Blalock, Program Manager at Little Miracles Early Development Center, is hugged by Brandon Reid.  Around them are Ryleigh Miller, left, and Brandon's twin sister Brooklyn.  The Ohio Senate proposed in its budget to change the rules for assessing daycare.

“When we started the steps, the whole framework of how we work as a company changed,” she said. “We conduct regular assessments. We conduct developmental screenings. We hire senior teachers who have associate or bachelor’s degrees.”

Basically, she believes that Step-Up to Quality helped prepare her children for kindergarten.

That’s important because 28% of all economically disadvantaged children in Franklin County passed their kindergarten exams in 2018, according to the Ohio Early Childhood Race and Rural Equity Report. Conversely, 60% of children from high-income households passed these exams.

The program is a winner in Blalock’s eyes, but it’s a problem for Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima.

He thinks any star rated places must exacerbate the childcare shortage in Ohio and crowd out quality providers. He believes the payment increases Step-Up is making for each new star could pose a $ 1 billion budget problem over the next decade. And Huffman believes the ratings won’t affect the way most parents shop for childcare.

So he dropped an amendment to the Senate version of Ohio’s two-year budget that would repeal the Star mandate. Institutions would still be paid extra to earn stars, but those without them could accept children of public support.

Childcare crisis

Before the pandemic, it was difficult to find childcare that could take your child. Now what experts call a full-blown crisis has been achieved.

“We have 2,000 jobs available within 10 miles of Lima,” said Joe Patton, Allen County’s director of jobs and family services. “The problem is that there are limited childcare options right now.”

He tells parents with multiple children that if they want seats for their three children, they must go to three separate facilities. Part of that is the pandemic, but Patton believes the other part is Step-Up to Quality.

In September it became mandatory for providers accepting government dollars to have at least one star. They need three stars by 2025. And he’s seen dozens of vendors go away.

“We had 60 eligible providers in 2012,” said Patton. “Now we’re at 17.”

It’s the mom-and-pop facilities that are disappearing, he said. Home places are given for 20 or 30 years by someone (usually a woman of color) who does not have a formal degree in early childhood education. Or the church preschool, which is manned by a small army of volunteers.

“These women will tell you, ‘My kids can read better than the kids in Lima City Schools,'” Huffman said. But they can’t afford the degrees and / or they don’t have time for paperwork.

That is the decision Andrea Stout made. She runs a preschool and a childcare center called Learning Tree in Lima. Her parish raised money for a few scholarships, but the rest of her welfare children were turned away.

Rising costs

The other problem Huffman sees with the Step Up to Quality program is the rising cost.

His staff estimated that the total cost of the publicly funded childcare program will increase 80% from 2021 to 2025 – which will hook Ohio by 2024 for $ 641.8 million more than it pays today.

It is possible that the federal government will pay some of these costs, but Huffman said the state shouldn’t tie its financial plans on that hope.

He couldn’t estimate how much Ohio would save if the stars became optional again. That depends on how many non-participating centers are allowed to accept children.

Senators will be discussing childcare offers and others in the coming weeks and will likely make further changes before June 30th to approve a budget.

Quality of education

It’s great to improve access to childcare, said Shannon Jones, a former Republican senator who heads Groundwork Ohio. But what is the point if you have to sacrifice quality?

A recent analysis by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center found that quality childcare and early education increases high school graduation rates while reducing the need for public assistance, criminal justice, and other social services.

“The cost savings from the lower participation in the criminal justice system alone pay more than 2.5 times the cost of expanding access to high-quality childcare”, so the interpretation of the report by Groundwork.

With the company's slogan on her shirt, infant teacher Rita Barkstall helps infants during their afternoon nap at the Little Miracles Early Development Center., 4445 Reinbeau Dr on the East Side.  The Ohio Senate proposed in its budget to change the rules for day care centers that accept children with public support.

If paperwork is the problem, we should find a way to fix it, said Joy Bivens, director of Franklin County’s Job and Family Services. If there is a money problem for centers, we should help them pay for the upgrades.

Your district officials did that. They invested $ 4 million to help childcare facilities across the county earn their stars.

“I have a hard time not viewing this as a racial equality issue,” said Bivens. “Seventy-three percent of our African American children weren’t ready for kindergarten … We hurt families when we say they don’t need to.”

And that’s what keeps Blalock up at night.

She grew up in Columbus’ hilltop neighborhood and knows what it is like to feel like cards are stacked against you. She understands why parents sit in their parking lot while their children have dinner.

“We break through generation barriers. We are driving these children into financially secure and stable working adults, ”said Blalock. “Please don’t devalue these lives.”

Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Akron Beacon Journal, and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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