The long drive to higher-quality child care

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Every weekday morning, Rosaida Benitez makes an almost hour-long drive from her home in the Northeast to her son’s child care center in North Philadelphia.

This is her son Gabriel’s second year at Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, a community child care center located near Temple University’s campus. They make this trip each morning because APM was the only high-quality center with open seats that could meet Gabriel’s needs.

“When I started looking for centers in the Northeast, they were very limited [in number],” said Benitez, “And by the time I filled out applications, they were all full.”

Benitez’s quest to find a high-quality center for her 4-year-old is representative of Philadelphia’s wanting supply — only 20 percent of children have access to high-quality early education.

Designations of quality come from the state’s Keystone STARS rating system, which sets performance standards. Factors that determine a site’s rating, set on a scale of STAR 1 to STAR 4, include staff qualifications, professional development, family and community relationships, and a facility’s leadership and management.

Only facilities rated STAR 3 or 4 are considered high-quality; those rated STAR 1 or 2 are working up to high-quality, with each level building upon the previous one.

A study by The Reinvestment Fund found that 66 percent of child care programs across the city participate in Keystone STARS. Only 21 percent of these programs have a rating of STAR 3 or 4.

This gap of 29,000 high-quality child care slots means that 68 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city are not in high-quality facilities.

“Most of our 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t sitting at home during the day. A vast majority of them are in child care centers,” said Sharon Easterling, co-chair of the Commission for Universal Pre-K, which is developing an implementation plan for pre-K expansion across the city.

“So the challenge is determining to what extent we create new services and move the children around or take these existing programs and raise the quality,” she added.

Choosing high-quality care

For Benitez, “high quality” meant finding a center where her son could feel comfortable. This meant sacrificing convenience. “The locations in the Northeast didn’t meet the expectations I was looking for,” she said. “I was looking for something my child could relate to, culturally.”

Gabriel lives in a Dominican household, where his family mostly speaks Spanish. “In making my decision, I realized that my son would be in the classroom for 10 hours a day and sometimes for 12 hours. It would’ve been difficult to place him in a location where the teachers only speak one language,” she said.

Among parents or guardians making such thorough decisions about child care, Benitez, a program director at the KenCrest South child care center, is an anomaly.

“I was able to make this decision for my son, because I am familiar with what a high-quality environment looks like,” she said.

The commission on pre-K has determined that bolstering parent knowledge and engagement around quality is a large part of achieving universality.

“Most parents aren’t asking about quality. They come in and just want to know if we have any openings,” said Carlotta Harris, a worker at Theresa’s Little Treasures, a child care center in the Northwest. “Some parents aren’t aware that there is a rating system and that certain STARS facilities can offer their child more.”

A University of Pennsylvania study found that children in STAR 3 and STAR 4 facilities were observed to have significantly higher outcomes than children in STAR 1 and STAR 2 centers.

To raise awareness around differences in child outcomes, the city needs to put forth a public education campaign and give parents incentives, such as tax credits or no copays, for choosing high-quality options, said Easterling.

Barriers to achieving high-quality

While Gabriel’s child care center has a STAR 4 rating, Benitez has recognized a trend in high teacher turnover.

“Over the past 12 months, my son has had three different lead teachers. Each time one leaves, he has to adjust to another teaching style. And the teacher then spends a lot of instructional time assessing students to determine where they are,” she said.

Finding and retaining enough teachers for the thousands of slots that will be opened is an area of focus for the commission. “It’s harder to find qualified teachers to work in early education, because the wages are low,” said Catherine Blunt, a commission member and former principal of Parkway Center City High School.

A report from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, supported by the William Penn Foundation, found that early child care providers universally do not pay well. Workers who hold four-year degrees make on average $24,000 a year and less than a quarter of staff receive employer-funded health insurance or retirement benefits.

Research has shown that one of the biggest barriers to receiving and maintaining a STAR 3 or 4 rating is a center’s inability to afford the most qualified teachers.

“The higher the rating, the more expensive it is to provide care,” said Blunt, “So most of these child care workers are making anywhere from seven to 10 dollars per hour.”

To improve and maintain Keystone STARS ratings, child care centers must hire directors, lead teachers, assistants, and aides who have met particular education requirements and acquired the necessary certifications and clearances. Each year, all staff must fulfill a certain number of training hours. The checklist of requirements gets longer with each STARS level.

The NFF study also found that providers struggle to reach a high-quality rating, because expenses increase over time, with no promise of commensurate gains in revenue.

High turnover occurs because teachers are looking for the best deal, said Benitez. Childcare workers may be in situations where the salary is higher than most other places, but there are no benefits or in a situation in which the salary is average but they have benefits, she said.

“As we move to universal pre-K, there is a need to increase the salaries of workers and there is a need to provide additional training at low costs to the centers. The workers themselves may be struggling parents and most likely have loans to pay off,” said Blunt.

The city wants to move in this direction. “We are working on financing scenarios that are both fair to the workers and will also ensure many more children can access opportunities for quality pre-K quickly,” said Anne Gemmell, the city’s new director of pre-K.

Benitez’s ideal situation for Gabriel would be that he goes to a center that is within walking distance of his home, where he forms strong relationships with his teachers, said Benitez.

“I’m worried about his transition into the school system,” she said, “because he will end up going to a neighborhood school here in the Northeast, away from the community he had at APM.”