Making ends meet

State childcare program loses providers and children as deadline looms

PHOTO: Getty Images

Despite a looming deadline that could deprive thousands of young children of day care, Illinois has made scant progress on ensuring providers attend safety training required to keep their state subsidies.

This is according to new numbers obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The providers could lose their paychecks, and children of low-income working families who rely on the program could be displaced, if caregivers don’t record their trainings within 90 days or if the state doesn’t revise its requirements.

According to data, only 1 in 3 providers who make up the majority of the state-subsidized child care program have met the new safety requirements, despite a Sept. 30 deadline that came and went. This group — known as friend, family, and neighbor care — accounts for 70 percent of all subsidized caregivers in Cook County. They are paid $16 a day by the state.

The trainings list includes CPR, first aid, a protocol for reporting suspected abuse, and a series on health and safety skills. The lessons originally were proposed to span 56 hours. The program has since been winnowed down to eight, with only four hours required by Sept. 30.

Despite those changes, early childhood advocates and the union that represents the providers have called the requirements and the state’s haphazard communication about them overly burdensome, especially for older caregivers who have never used a computer and for rural providers who live dozens of miles from the nearest CPR training site.

Critics said the state’s shifting deadlines and complicated reporting system have cause confusion among caregivers and that participation is declining.

“These are very bad and very punitive requirements,” said Brynn Seibert, the director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, the union that represents some of the providers.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, which administers the program, said that her agency is not trying to be punitive, but rather is attempting to raise standards for all publicly funded providers as required by a 2014 federal law.

“We’ve tried to make training available as many places as possible, and at as many times as possible,” said Meghan Powers. “These are people paid through state dollars, and we think they should have the same type of training requirements as someone who is paid privately.”

Dan Harris, the executive director of the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which maintains the state’s credentialing system and designs the trainings, said his organization is partnering with local agencies and the state human services department to “arrive at a resolution that maintains the integrity of the system” and doesn’t threaten the care of children across the state.

Lori Longueville, who runs a referral agency that serves the state’s southernmost counties, said it’s time to step back and evaluate “if the path we are on is really right.”

“We need to be open to making changes.”

A program under stress

Not even established daycare center directors have fully embraced the training. According to the data obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request, only about 40 percent of licensed centers that receive the subsidy have completed the entire training regimen, and about 20 percent of staff at license-exempt centers — those typically operating in churches, for example — so far have met the requirements.

The training snafu puts stress on a program that already has been losing providers and children. After Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements in 2015, the number of children served dropped by 31 percent. As of August, the state was serving about 122,600 children monthly.

The Rauner administration ultimately reversed its changes. But advocates are concerned that the program is still contracting. Cook County-based Illinois Action for Children, the state’s largest referral agency, said that 2,362 children, or 15 percent, of children have dropped out of its subsidized family and neighbor care program in the past 12 months.

The number of participating caregivers in that program has dropped 12 percent, too, over a similar timeframe.

“This drop represents an ongoing trend that began 2½ years ago,” said Maria Whelan, the group’s executive director.

This doesn’t even account for the impact of the new training requirements or their enforcement, Whelan added.  

More than half of Illinois children are in the care of family, friends, or neighbors — a trend that’s observed across the country, according to a new report from Child Care Aware of America. The report, which was released this week, said that only 1 in 6 children nationwide who are eligible for a subsidy actually receives one, which raises serious questions about hurdles families face trying to find affordable, quality care. Illinois is one of the least affordable states for child care in the report. 

Dionne Dobbins, a lead researcher on the report, said that anemic reimbursement rates, compliance issues, mandatory trainings, and overregulation threaten programs in several states, not just Illinois.

“Throughout the country, we see providers not being able to keep their businesses open, and they are going under,” said Dobbins.

Other pressure points

Illinois providers will soon encounter another hurdle. The state notified providers in an August letter that it will be sending out independent monitors to conduct safety visits. The letter did not spell out inspection criteria or a deadline.

Whelan, of Illinois Action for Children, said that safety visits are a good idea in theory, but they are a huge undertaking that should be approached thoughtfully. Some family providers — such as a grandmother caring for her grandchildren — could be reluctant to let someone into their homes.

“Improving quality for children in all settings matters a great deal and so does creating approaches for holding providers accountable,” Whelan said. But, she added, “what we do not want to see happen is punitive monitoring protocols.”

A monitoring program built on strong relationships between agencies and providers could help link more families with formal preschool programs or other critical services, such as food pantries or doctors. However, if mishandled and providers are sanctioned or scared off, agencies risk losing an important connection to some of the state’s most vulnerable families.

Depending on the outcome of the Nov. 6 gubernatorial race, the whole scenario could change. The winner will oversee how the state enforces the training requirements, and perhaps whether it will cut off caregivers.That’s because federal law establishes that training and monitoring must happen, but states decide many of the particulars — including who is required to complete it.  

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”