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

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.