Hope Child Development Center in New Haven in 2017, where most of the children receive Care4Kids subsidies Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org
Children enrolled at Rhonda Strycharz’s home day care program.

When Rhonda Strycharz first opened a day care 18 years ago in her New Hartford home, only a few states had a rating system to help parents choose a child care provider.

Connecticut was not among them.

By last year, 41 states had a county or state-wide Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) for parents to use to research safety and educational quality of day cares.

Connecticut still does not – despite more than a decade of attempts by state leaders.

“How can Connecticut be this far behind?” asked Strycharz. “I find almost all my clients through word of mouth, but if you were new to the neighborhood it would be difficult. When you’re new and nobody knows you, the only thing you have to go on is who you are as a person and the vibe parents get when they meet you.”

The rating systems in other states provide a window for parents to understand the level of quality, education and safety in an early child care program. Websites generally provide a database of facilities throughout the state, and typically rate them A through F or give one to five stars.

In an effort to give parents a window into the safety and quality of their day care provider, The CT Mirror has compiled a database of safety violations and resolutions, inspection history, and NAEYC accreditation. Some program entries will include the actual inspection report and case file. However, the case records are limited because the state does not keep electronic copies. Providers are required to have a copy of their inspection reports on site for review, so parents with questions may ask to see them.

In addition, they often offer incentives for improvement to child care providers, like increasing state reimbursement rates for higher scores.

“I think the QRIS will help because having some kind of system in place that allows us to advance ourselves and obtain stars … would be something for parents to see that you’re not just staying home with your kids, that you take this seriously,” Strycharz said.

State officials point to Connecticut having one of the highest rates of programs that are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) – which is often referred to as the “gold standard” for measuring the safety and quality of a program.

Even still, of the 3,343 day care centers and home care programs that are licensed by the state, just 562 are accredited by NAEYC. That means that 83 percent of child care programs in the state that are responsible for tens of thousands of children are without accreditation, making it difficult for families to determine a program’s level of quality.

Although the state does license programs to ensure that facilities and homes are safe for children and staff are equipped to handle emergencies, the state’s online database only provides the date that an inspection took place, not violations or substantiated abuse allegations. It also does not indicate which facilities have received NAEYC accreditation.

CT’s snail’s pace

Georgia hosts a website for parents to find quality rated child care. Here is a sampling of a map of locations around Atlanta. qualityrated.org

Today, Connecticut is 10 months into the pilot phase of developing a rating system. The Office of Early Childhood (OEC) doesn’t expect all state-funded child care programs to be part of that rating system until 2021.

“In 2014, the Office of Early Childhood started to take another run, ramped up pretty quickly, but generated a lot of the concerns from providers and advocates who were concerned about cost and complexity,” said David Wilkinson, the commissioner of OEC. “Increasing quality is very important but we need to ensure it does not overly burden our childcare providers who are often overworked and underfunded.”

Child care facilities often operate on such narrow margins that one small change can put them out of business. Therefore, many providers and advocates across the state are nervous about any additional requirements that might be required to earn a high rating.

“Providers currently implement many health, safety and quality standards. We don’t want this to be a duplicative effort,” Wilkinson said. “We want to build on accreditation and licensing standards most facilities already meet.”

NAEYC is based on 10 standards: relationships, curriculum, teaching, assessment of child progress, health, staff competencies, families, community relationships, physical environment and leadership. But only 17 percent of programs in Connecticut have landed this accreditation. With the exception of a few programs (such as preschools in public schools) every provider must be licensed and inspected for safety.

According to providers, NAEYC standards are challenging and expensive to achieve, but any state-funded facility must be accredited within three years of opening.

“Connecticut was among the first states to advance widespread adoption of NAEYC accreditation, and we’re proud of that” Wilkinson said. “NAEYC is a binary indicator of quality, you either meet the standards or you don’t – like a good housekeeping stamp of approval. It’s a valuable and useful step, but many providers prefer a ladder they can climb for achievable, incremental improvement while parents would value an easy-to-understand way to help make an important decision for their children.  A QRIS does this with more gradations, such as a star recognition or grading system.”

That’s because tens of thousands of children attend unaccredited programs in Connecticut. The state and federal government spend about $100 million each year to provide child care subsidies to low-income families through the Care 4 Kids program, and many parents use it to enroll in unaccredited home-based programs. Additionally, there are many day care centers that don’t receive state funding, which would require acreditation.

It’s a shortfall that has been going on for years. Connecticut Voices for Children, for example, in 2012 reported that “there is no method to the madness” when it pointed out that the state insufficiently monitors early child care programs, and therefore doesn’t know what it’s getting for its annual investment.

The QRIS rating systems in other states are based on things like staff-child ratios, teacher qualifications, and components of the educational environment. Unlike NAEYC, it isn’t a pass/fail system but instead rates each program on its fulfillment of standards.

Although progress thus far has been exceedingly slow – nearly four years of planning and $1 million spent for this most recent attempt, with no discernible results – the state is determined to continue work.

“I think the first thing is the value proposition. Ninety percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life and the conditions in which that happens has a lasting effect. The evidence is now undeniable that the classroom experience in those years is incredibly important in terms of kindergarten readiness, school performance, and later life success,” Wilkinson said. “That developing brain spends a lot of time in child care and pre-k settings. For some children, it is nearly as many waking hours as with family.  That’s why choosing a program is one of the most important decisions new parents make.”

No progress

David Wilkinson speaks after the announcement of his appointment as commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Mark Pazniokas / CTMirror.org

Connecticut first attempted to create a QRIS in 2008. It was mostly a volunteer effort coordinated through several different state agencies but, despite hundreds of hours of work, no program ever got off the ground.

In 2013, the Early Childhood Education Cabinet began planning again. It published a report in 2014 with numerous recommendations, but there was no funding available to move the plans forward.

According to the state, “the original QRIS failed because of the push back from providers and some advocates. Certain corners of that world are both very politically active and not in favor of QRIS because it is an unproven approach and they operate on razor thin financial margins and the cost of quality far exceeds the subsidy level the state provides.”

But others who were involved at the time think the failure came from a lack of organization on the state’s part.

“The effort ended because there wasn’t an office of early childhood. A cabinet is not the same as having an agency that actually runs things,” said Merrill Gay, the executive director for the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance. “The ball got dropped after the initial effort because there wasn’t anyone to call the plays.”

The Early Childhood Education Cabinet was created in 2005 by Governor M. Jodi Rell with the goal of developing “a high-quality, comprehensive system of early childhood education among the wide array of early childhood programs in the state,” according to its website.

According to Gay, Rell was interested in showing her support for early childhood by establishing the cabinet, but little funding or organization was put toward any of the stated goals of the cabinet.

“There wasn’t any commitment to it,” Gay said. “Early childhood services were split among all agencies, not coordinated, and there was nobody to try and get the system to work better because it wasn’t a system, it was a bunch of pieces.”

Dissatisfied with the work of the cabinet, advocates across the state pushed for the creation of the Office of Early Childhood. Ten years after the cabinet was created, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state legislators established the office.

“The idea of having a system that parents can easily look at to get a sense of if this is a good place to put my kid sounds great,” Gay said. “After the Office of Early Childhood got developed, the fact that we didn’t have a quality rating improvement system was dinging us on applications and ratings.”

And that was three years ago.

With NAEYC, is QRIS necessary?

Three years of missing out on grant opportunities, possibly due to the lack of to a QRIS, and Connecticut still only has a pilot rating system operating for a handful of providers. But NAEYC accredited programs have continued to grow.

“The fact that Connecticut has such robust NAEYC adoption has been put forward as a rationale by some not to pursue QRIS, which is understandable,” said Wilkinson.

The pilot QRIS focused on ensuring that the requirements and standards were appropriate.

“It also focused on checking and making sure that this can be used across all settings,” said Erica Phillips, the chief operating officer for All Our Kin, a New Haven-based nonprofit that assists 400 home-day care professionals in southwestern Connecticut. “Quality in home-based environments looks very different than it does in a center or an after-school program.”

The problem: programs have invested trying to land NAEYC accreditation and providers worry they will not have enough money to fulfill new requirements without additional state aid. Twelve percent of the federal block grant the state receives for child care is earmarked for improvement efforts each year.

“There aren’t enough resources in the system. It’s a stressful job,” Gay said. “Putting more pressure and requirements on day care providers without providing more resources is not sustainable.”

Provider perspective

The preschool area at Rhonda Strycharz\’s day care program.

Making Connecticut’s QRIS as straightforward as possible will be essential to getting providers onboard and ensuring compliance, said Natalie  Vieira, a policy associate for All Our Kin. Day care providers typically work alone or with just a couple co-workers and they often work for low wages.

Very few were able to participate in the state’s pilot due to the complexity, Vieira said.

“Unfortunately only a few [home-based] providers were able to participate because of the amount of work required to fully complete the pilot,” Vieira said. “There was a challenge around language, none of the materials were available in other languages apart from English. Computer access or computer literacy was a barrier. It required providers to participate in this series of webinars.”

Day care providers went through a bottleneck when the state almost entirely stopped providing new families with Care 4 Kids day care subsidies for 15 months. Between August 2016 and November 2017, the program which provides vouchers to low income families was closed to 91 percent of new applicants.

“In 2014, the federal government introduced a series of new requirements for states. Most notably, a new policy extended the length of the voucher from 8 to 12 months,” Wilkinson said. “While we agreed with the laudable goal of continuity of care, the very costly mandate was not accompanied with any resources to pay for it.”

In response, the state reduced the program to allow only people from the lowest income bracket, dropping the number of children attending day care on Care4Kids vouchers from 23,000 to 13,000.

This pushed programs already operating on the edge into the red.

“There are lots of reasons programs close,” Gay said. “But that’s kind of a way of saying I wasn’t making enough money as a home day care provider.”

Additionally, the birth rate has been declining steadily over the past decade, leading to both fewer children and providers.

During the 2017-2018 school year, 390 family day care programs closed, while only 142 new ones opened. For center-based programs, 198 closed and just 55 opened.

That rate can not be explained away by fewer births or career changes.

“I think there are people in the provider system that are upset about the state investing in a fancy system to judge us instead of giving them money to get better,” Gay said.

The state’s 2-1-1 care info line helps parents find available programs in their area. It doesn’t give any rating or quality assurance of the program, but it does provide information for how parents can find child care in addition to health and safety checklists parents should take with them when touring a facility.

“We think it’s important to have a way for providers to explain to parents the quality of their program to have a set of standards around quality,” Vieira said.

A QRIS would give parents a way of differentiating between programs based on specific quality measures.

Slow and steady might win the race

Although Connecticut might be one of the last states to pilot a QRIS, many providers and state officials point out that this may not be a negative.

“We avoided some of the challenges faced by the states that jumped in early. We have closely observed their efforts and have learned from their experience,” Wilkinson said. “It’s not always best to be first. Many QRIS early adopter states had rough starts and are now doing second, third iterations. Given the national experience it’s better that we weren’t a first mover.”

A realistic timeline for providers who are stressed, busy, and operating on a thin budget is the only timeline that will succeed, Vieira said.

“My understanding is that they are being [flexible] on the time,” Vieira said. “We appreciate a long thoughtful process that includes as much feedback as possible.”

Editor’s note: this story was updated on October 22 to clarify two of Vieira’s remarks.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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