The state spends millions of dollars every year to send babies and young children to day care centers without monitoring them to determine if they are safe and without requiring that they provide anything of educational value.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is proposing to change this. In the state’s bid for $37.5 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition, the administration is asking for money to transform how Connecticut pays for early child care and education.
“Our primary goal is to increase the number of high quality early learning settings serving children with high needs,” Malloy’s application to the federal government reads. “Many of these programs are either at baseline or unknown quality… It is unacceptable for children to experience such wide disparities in the quality of their early learning and development programs.”
The “highest priority” for reform in the state’s application is the Care 4 Kids program, in which the state subsidizes child care costs for low-income families so parents can work. The administration is concerned that the state writes blank checks with no requirements or oversight of these facilities. Federal auditors reported earlier this month that every one of the home day care providers they inspected had health or safety problems.
The administration is proposing that the state launch a quality ratings system for day care centers that parents can easily review when they are choosing where to send their children. Nearly every provider that receives state funding would have to participate in the rating system to receive state funding.
The five-tier rating system, which would begin in March, would at a minimum require that every center be licensed to ensure the facility is safe and that staff have the appropriate background checks. The state also promises in its application to seek a change in state law to require that every facility be inspected annually. The state currently inspects some centers just once every three years.
The other tiers -– state reimbursements would be higher for program with higher ratings -- are linked to programs' adopting high education standards and having teaching staff with greater qualifications.
Each school year, 30 percent of kindergarten students in the state's cities and other low-income districts show up for school having never attended preschool. In all the other communities, about 10 percent of students never attend preschool, the State Department of Education reports. Malloy's plan seeks to enroll 9,500 of these needy students in "high-quality" preschool programs by 2017.
Dozens of private providers are nervous about these potential changes, said Gerry Pastor, president of the Connecticut Childcare Association and the owner of a network of day care facilities throughout the state.
“The concerns are huge,” he said, noting that there are not enough people available to meet the increased qualifications for staff at the higher rating levels. “There is simply not a candidate pool for a higher educated staff. They are not out there,” he said.
This is not a new concern. Providers have told state legislators for years that a state law requiring that half of the day care workers have a bachelor's degree by 2015 is not feasible.
The state’s solution, as outlined in its application to Washington last week, is to provide $2.4 million each year for the next four years to offer scholarships to day care workers who seek degrees or certificates. Because staff with more education would expect to receive higher salaries, and because state reimbursement rates have not changed over the last 12 years, the governor has promised the union representing these workers that the state would pay higher reimbursement rates.
But Pastor pointed out that the higher reimbursement rates would be provided only for those children receiving state subsidies.
“What about the other 90 percent of the children?” he asked, saying the incentive to increase staffing qualifications may not pay off and could be an added cost for day care centers. He worries the new rating standards will cause many providers to discontinue taking Care 4 Kids to avoid the standards, which he says will be devastating to the children to whom they provide services as they will have nowhere to turn.
To ensure that no child loses care as a result of these increased costs, Malloy promised to ask the legislature in February to increase funding for Care 4 Kids next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Pastor said he supports the plan, despite his concerns.
“If it’s done properly it will raise the level of care,” he said. “The problem is the devil is in the details.”
The administration also plans to require that the public preschool programs that collectively care for 9,500 children meet state education standards. “These children are also in settings of unknown quality,” the application reports.
Kathy Queen, director of the Wallingford Community Daycare, said there is no question that there will be pushback from local education officials.
“This is a step towards an unfunded mandate,” she said. She is concerned about whether the state could sustain a more expensive system after federal funding dries up in four years.
“You have to be careful about what you ask for because sometimes you get it,” she said. “You can set up all the standards, but if you can’t afford them, what good is it? We have to make sure the cost of this is not pushed off to those who need and are paying for child care.”
The director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood was unavailable for comment Monday.
Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., applied for the $280 million pot of money. The U.S. Department of Education is slated to announce the winners of the competition in December. The state has lost three previous rounds in the Race to the Top program.