raising the bar

Helping poor families afford child care used to be about working parents, but recent changes focus on kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

New federal rules that demand more of child care providers are the latest example of a growing push to ensure that children, especially those from low-income families, are getting high-quality care.

The rules, tied to a $74 million federal grant awarded to Colorado largely to help poor families with childcare costs, beef up health and safety requirements and give bigger subsidies to parents who choose highly rated child care providers.

The rules — along with state-level efforts to revamp and better fund the subsidy program over the last few years — represent a big shift for the program, which was originally created to help parents hold down jobs.

The federal law enacting the subsidy program was passed at the height of welfare reform in the mid-1990s, when one of the key priorities was to get people receiving government aid back into the workforce.

“Its history literally is, ‘Where are you going to put the kids so the adults can work?’” said Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The quality of those child care programs was a secondary concern.

Gradually, that changed with growing recognition in Colorado and the nation that high-quality child care can make a big difference for kids. This set the stage for more regulation to ensure quality and greater financial incentives for child care providers who work to improve.

It’s no longer seen as a program focused on one generation — working adults — but rather a two-generation strategy that also prioritizes the needs of young children.

Despite the raft of changes, the subsidy program, called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, is complicated and can be extremely cumbersome for parents and providers. It serves about 30,000 children annually, though there’s not enough money to help all eligible kids.

Still, Jaeger said Colorado was ahead of the curve in revamping the program in 2014. Unlike other states, Colorado also made major increases in the state allocation for the program.

Late in 2014, the federal government reauthorized the child care subsidy program law and released draft rules to go along with it. That gave Colorado and other states a chance to make additional changes before the final rules came out this month.

The new federal rules, most of which are already in place in Colorado, including a range of health and safety requirements, ranging from First Aid and CPR training to mandatory criminal background checks for child care staff. One change coming in November will be the launch of annual licensing inspections for Colorado child care providers. The rule used to be every three years, then it was changed to the current standard — every 18 months.

The new federal rules also require higher subsidies when parents send their kids to high-quality providers — those that have earned a Level 3, 4 or 5 on the state’s five-level Colorado Shines rating system. The new reimbursement system started here in July.

In addition, states must provide information to help parents choose a child care provider. While Colorado already does that through its Colorado Shines ratings website and a statewide network of child care referral specialists, more help is coming. Starting next fall, the state will launch a new search tool that will include child care providers’ licensing history and inspection reports, said officials from the Colorado Department of Human Services.

The shift to a child care subsidy system that emphasizes quality hasn’t been without tension, though. Although there’s lots of evidence that kids in high-quality child care benefit academically and socially, there’s also concern that directing extra dollars to increase quality diverts money from the long line of families who desperately need help with childcare costs.

Here We Go

House education committee greenlights increasing funding for kindergarten, banning corporal punishment

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

The Colorado House Education Committee on Monday gave bipartisan blessing to two bills that would increase funding for kindergarten in the state’s public schools and ban corporal punishment in schools and child care centers.

The bill to fund the state’s kindergarten programs in public schools, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, is expected to be short-lived given the state’s fiscal constraints. If Wilson’s bill were to become law, it would cost the state more than $42 million. The state currently is funding schools at a $830 million deficit.

The state currently gives schools about $5,000 for every kindergarten student. However, schools receive more than $8,000 for every student in grades one through 12. Wilson’s bill would work toward closing that gap.

“We say we can’t afford it. Well, guess what? Our districts can’t afford it either,” Wilson said.

Most of the state’s school districts offer full-day kindergarten. However, some rely on charging tuition while others divert federal funds to make up the difference.

The bill passed 12-4 with Rep. Lang Sias, an Arvada Republican, joining all the Democrats on the Democratic-controlled committee. But committee members were well aware of the bill’s likely fate.

A similar bill sponsored by Lakewood Democrats Sen. Andy Kerr and Rep. Brittany Pettersen  has already been sent to the Senate’s state affairs committee, where it’s expected to die. The difference between the two bills: Kerr’s and Pettersen’s bill would ask voters to approve a tax increase to pay for kindergarten.

The bill to prohibit corporal punishment, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would outlaw using physical punishment for children in public schools and private child care centers. That would extend to small licensed day cares run out of private homes.    

Colorado is one of 19 states that does not currently ban physical violence used as punishment in schools or day cares. Lontine’s bill, which passed on an 11-2 vote, would end such practices, which are rare.

“If you did this at home, it’d be child abuse,” Lontine said. “But if you did it in school, it’d be corporal punishment and it’d be allowed.”

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, nearly 500 incidents of corporal punishment were reported in Colorado. However, that data was called into question when Michael Clough, superintendent of the Sheridan School District, said the 400 cases his district mistakenly reported the data.

“We have not and we do not have corporal punishment,” he said. “It does seem like we need work with data collection.”

Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, attempted to amend the bill that would recognize local school district policies. However, that amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Pettersen, the committee’s chairwoman, and other Democrats expressed interest in taking a second look at the amendment when the bill is debated by the entire House of Representatives. They want to ensure that every school district was meeting a state standard.

Monday’s meeting of the House Education Committee marked the first time this session education related bills were discussed. The session is expected to be largely defined by the budget debate and how educators respond to the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

Pre-K outcomes

New York City’s latest pre-K quality data includes success stories — and room for improvement

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

At P.S. 276 Louis Marshall, there’s a “hand-to-hand” policy for pre-K students: Parents come straight to the classroom to drop off and pick up their children, who pass directly from the hands of their caregivers into those of their teachers.

Along the way, parents are encouraged to read a book with their child — classroom libraries are stocked with titles in parents’ native languages, like Arabic and Haitian Creole — or chat with a teacher about their child’s progress.

Principal Yasmine Fidelia says that has been the secret to becoming one of the most-improved pre-K programs in the city. According to data released this week by the city Department of Education, P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn jumped from 2.6 to 4.6 on a 7-point scale. That is well above the 3.4 threshold to be considered an effective program.

“The parents and the teachers were able to work more closely because we have a hand-to-hand policy,” Fidelia said. “It just made it easier to form a relationship.”

As New York City raced to make free pre-K available for all 4-year-olds, fulfilling Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision, observers have worried about whether quality could keep up with access. On Tuesday, the city released a second round of pre-K data that shows there is plenty of room for improvement — but also that some centers seem to have benefitted from the Department of Education’s emphasis on teacher training and curriculum.

Citywide, 84 percent of the sites evaluated between 2013 and 2016 earned a 3.4 or higher — up from 77 percent of the sites evaluated between 2012 and 2015. The tool — the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale – Revised — relies on a three-and-a-half hour observation and assesses things like teachers’ interactions with their students and whether kids get enough time to play.

P.S. 335 Granville T. Woods, on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, also showed an impressive leap in scores.

The program’s initial review found that teachers needed to work on building their students’ language skills. With the help of an instructional coach who visits twice a month and an on-staff coach that the school dips into its own budget to fund, teachers learned how to encourage deeper conversations with and among their students.

Principal Karena Thompson said she can see the difference. Now, teachers will listen to their students speak and follow up with questions like, “How do you know that?” or “What makes you think that?”

“We’re trying to make sure that the conversation and the language we use strengthens their thinking,” Thompson said. “They’re naturally so curious, so you want to tap into that.”

While city officials have touted the overall improvement across Pre-K for All sites, an analysis by Families for Excellent Schools — a pro-charter group and fierce critic of the city’s Department of Education — found much to criticize.

In order to meet demand quickly, the city relied on both private organizations and existing public schools to provide pre-K seats, with a split that is now roughly 60/40 private vs. public. FES found that privately-run centers are far more likely to be rated “excellent” or “good,” according to the most recent year of ECERS-R data.

Their analysis found that 93 percent of privately-run sites were rated “good” or “excellent,” while only 84 percent of sites run by the Department of Education received those top ratings. The group also reported that city-run programs were far more likely to be rated “poor.”

The performance gap between private and public pre-K centers actually grew six times larger since 2015, according to the advocacy group.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, called the FES report “grossly misleading.” FES only looked at the most recent scores, which Kaye said does not reflect a representative sample of all sites. The report also ignored another evaluation tool used by the department, under which DOE-run pre-K sites perform slightly better, she added.

“The latest data shows that we’ve built quality along with access,” Kaye wrote in an email. “NYC programs’ improvement is on par with nationally recognized pre-K programs.”