Budget proposal leads to battle over Ohio’s child care quality rules

The Ohio Senate has proposed eliminating the Step Up to Quality child care standards

Senate Republicans proposed big changes to Ohio’s system of child care for low-income families last week, but opponents argue the plan will hurt the development of Ohio’s children.

Under the Senate’s budget proposal, child care providers would no longer have to meet certain quality standards to serve children in Ohio’s publicly funded child care system.

That Step Up to Quality system has been in place for years to ensure that child care providers gradually improve and meet minimum benchmarks (one star by 2020, three stars by 2025) in order to receive partial reimbursement from the state for serving low-income families.

Senate President Matt Huffman last week called that system a mandate “that caused substantial damage to the child care infrastructure,” arguing that it led some child care providers to close. But a host of education, business and family advocacy groups pushed back.

Lynanne Gutierrez, assistant director of the Groundwork Ohio child advocacy group, disputed Huffman’s claim about child care access.

“As of last fall when all providers had to be rated, 95-96% of them did,” Gutierrez said. “And there was agreement (years ago) that it was not acceptable to continue to put public tax dollars into programs that were not meeting this very humble floor and commitment to provide quality.”

To earn a one-star rating, child care providers must file documentation on employees’ education levels, ensure minimum levels of instructional time, host an onsite review, and submit a plan for future staff training and curriculum efforts.

As the levels increase in the five-star system, staff education and training requirements rise, as do the documentation requirements, curriculum implementation, and the detail level of onsite reviews.

Child care providers serving low-income families receive additional funding if they increase their star ratings.

Jama Hardern, owner of Rainbow Years child care center in east Dayton, said Step Up to Quality requirements have led her center to go with smaller class sizes and to screen all children for developmental delays, leading to better services for children and families.

But Hardern makes clear that she has to run a business, and the financial rewards for earning those stars are important.

“Businesses respond to economic models that you encourage,” she said. “If you encourage a model that treats children as widgets, where you are not incentivized to provide better care … would I, as a business, choose to do those things that cost (more) money? We respond to market forces the way any business does.”

Huffman said last week that the costs of Step Up to Quality would have soared in future years as more providers earned more stars. He said the Senate changes would add $10 million to the state’s budget for publicly funded child care and would make more families eligible.

The $10 million comes out to a 1.4% increase, given Ohio’s $696.7 million spending on publicly funded child care in fiscal year 2019. And families would now be eligible at up to 142% of the federal poverty level, up from 138%. That means a family of three would be eligible up to $30,842 annual income, rather than $29,973.

Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Dayton-Montgomery County Preschool Promise, said that increase of less than $1,000 “is not even worth talking about,” given that child care needs for a full-time worker cost up to and beyond $10,000 per year per child.

But Lightcap’s larger concern was taking away the quality requirements, as she said not all child care options are the same.

Advocates of the Step Up to Quality system pointed to studies showing that star-rated child care programs prepare Ohio children better for kindergarten. They also cited a new University of Cincinnati report finding that high-quality child care generates a 10% annual return on public investment.

“The Senate is not only throwing away money that the state has invested (in recent years), they are also jeopardizing the local investment that we have made,” Lightcap said, pointing to city and county spending on early childhood improvements, as well as tax levies that residents in Dayton, Cincinnati and other cities have approved for that purpose.

“Eliminating Step Up to Quality would be a betrayal and a reckless use of federal and state funding for our children,” she said.

Gutierrez also said the Senate bill would prevent new federal relief funding for child care from being used for certain staff pay and training.

A child care director and a Job and Family Services official from Huffman’s district said at a press conference last week that the regulations and administrative costs of the Step Up to Quality program were overly burdensome on child care centers.

At a news conference Friday, other child care providers, as well as the CEOs of both Donatos Pizza and Skyline Chili, disputed that, citing the need for high-quality child care oversight, so their employees who are parents could go to work.

Last month, Dayton business leaders also testified to the Senate. Stephanie Keinath, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, called increased investment in high-quality child care “a win for our families, our businesses and Ohio’s economy.”

David Melin, regional president of PNC Bank, said of Step Up to Quality, “we must adopt a long-term view, knowing we will reap the dividends of our investment for years to come.”

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