This article, written by Jessica Bies, was originally featured in the Delaware News Journal.
Unless the state invests more in early childhood education, child care providers say they may soon drop out of a program intended to increase access to early childhood education for low-income kids.
That could spell trouble for Delaware Stars for Early Success, which offers training for early child care providers and rates them on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Centers that improve can get reassessed and secure more funding through a tiered reimbursement plan tied to a program that helps working, low-income families pay for preschool.
Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work.
This year, thanks to a $400 million budget shortfall, early child care centers will be stuck at their current reimbursement levels, regardless of how much time, energy and money they’ve put into improving the quality of education they provide.
Kimberly Krzanowski, director of the state’s early learning office, told child care providers in an email last week that during the most recent legislative session, the General Assembly set aside $5 million to support Delaware Stars and $20 million to support tiered reimbursements.
That isn’t enough money to expand the program, Krzanowski said, and as a result, early child care centers will not be allowed to apply for larger reimbursements.
Initially, the child care centers would have also been barred from applying for a higher star rating, but late Thursday, the state reversed course and announced they would be able to apply for better ratings even though they won’t get any more money for moving up.
Andria Keating, owner/operator of Babes on the Square, Too, in Brandywine, said the news about the reimbursements freeze didn’t catch her completely off guard but stung nonetheless.
“For centers that are looking to advance, it was a loss,” she said. “And it’s going to be a significant loss to me.”
Keating recently spent $6,000 to $7,000 in fees and improvements to pursue accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which would have bumped her facility’s rating from four stars to five.
At five stars, she’d be reimbursed at a higher rate for her 55 low-income students. They make up more than 30 percent of her business.
Four-star facilities are reimbursed at about 93 percent of the market rate, while five-star facilities receive about 102 percent, according to the Delaware Stars site.
Three-star facilities get reimbursed at about 80 percent. The reimbursement rates are based on 2011 market rates and leave even five-star centers slightly underpaid for their services.
“I was looking at about $50,000 (more a year),” Keating said.
She planned on using the money to give her employees bigger quarterly bonuses. On average, child care workers in Delaware make $9.95 an hour, or $20,690 a year.
“I can’t-do that now,” she said, adding that her staff was fully aware of her efforts to bring in more money to the business.
But that’s not the biggest loss, she said.
More than anything, Keating is disappointed at the lackluster support Delaware and the General Assembly have given early childhood education. Stars is an involved and laborious program, she said, and many child care centers participate only in it to get better reimbursements for serving low-income kids.
Without more funding, she can see a lot of centers dropping out of the Stars program and the quality of early childhood education declining.
“If they’re not getting tiered reimbursements, why are they putting the effort into it?” she said. “We’d like to think that everyone’s in it for the children, but for some people, it’s just business.”
State Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, who is an early child care provider himself, empathized.
He said even five-star programs like his, Tender Loving Kare Childcare & Learning Center, are having a hard time keeping up with the higher standards built into Delaware Stars because of how low reimbursements are.
It’s not about greed or profits — it’s about keeping the doors open, he said.
It takes a lot of money to be a five-star facility and to retain good quality staff — if reimbursements continue to lag behind current market rates, soon, for many businesses, it just won’t be feasible to be a part of the program anymore.
“If we don’t stay up with (funding Delaware Stars), programs will decide: ‘I can no longer afford to accept the lower-income kids,'” Johnson said. “And then we’ll regress back to where they are no longer in high-quality programs.”
“It would just be a huge step backward in all the advancements we’ve made in early childhood education and leveling the playing field.”
Less interest in training
As it is, fewer early child care centers are seeking help from Delaware Stars’ “technical assistants,” said Leslie Newman of Children and Families First. She is also a member of the Delaware Early Childhood Council.
Through a contract with Delaware Stars, her staff offers onsite training and guidance for centers that want to improve their ratings.
“What we do is we work with programs that are in the Stars system, and we target the areas that will help them to approve,” Newman said. “I think the unintended consequence of this is that (early child care centers) have lost the incentive to take full advantage of the technical assistants to move up and improve their quality.”
Not only that, but childcare providers are busy, said Michelle Shaivitz, director of the advocacy group, Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children.
If they know there’s no financial gain, why would they work overtime to earn another star?
“You’re losing money on every single child,” she said. “How does that make sense?”
Early child care providers are increasingly unhappy with Delaware Stars, Shaivitz said, and while the state says it has “maintained” funding levels for the program, many don’t see it that way because reimbursement rates haven’t been adjusted for inflation.
Mike Jackson, director of Delaware’s Office of Management Budget, said that would be a several-million-dollar investment in of itself.
“We have gotten quite a few phone calls from people that say they aren’t even going to participate in Stars if this is the way it’s going to be,” Shaivitz said. “What they’re saying to us and what we’re hearing a lot of is: ‘Why am I working so hard to be a part of something that the government can just shut down or freeze?'”
Delaware’s Secretary of Education Susan Bunting says providers should hold tight.
“There is no reason to think that this may not be funded in the future,” she said, adding that “there are many programs that survived this year, but had to live with budget cuts.”
If the program is eventually expanded, child care centers that have stuck with Stars could be in the position to immediately apply for the next level of reimbursements, Bunting said. That’s especially true now that DOE has decided to allow providers to apply for more stars in the interim.
Not that the money should be early child care providers’ primary concern, she added.
“If there had never been reimbursements, I think I still would have made a strong effort to get that five-star quality,” she said, putting herself in the role of a child care provider. “I would want to be the best that I can be, whether or not I’d be reimbursed for that.”
Keating said that yes, she wants credit for her work. Just being a five-star facility has some cachet. But she also said the community-at-large isn’t familiar with Delaware Stars and that being rated higher won’t necessarily attract more business or help tide her over financially until the reimbursements come.
Bunting, earlier this week, said she was hesitant to give centers higher ratings for fear they would see it as a promise that funding would be restored in the next legislative session.
The bigger picture
People can’t work for free, Shaivitz said.
She has a feeling the topic of tiered reimbursements will be a hot one at a Nov. 21 public hearing on the Department of Education’s budget.
“This is a really important issue, and it’s going to get much larger,” she said. “You better believe that people are going to be at those budget meetings.”
Atnre Alleyne, director of the nonprofit advocacy group DelawareCAN: The Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, said “Delaware is lying to its babies and toddlers” by failing to invest in Delaware Stars and early childhood education, while at the same time pushing for higher achievement and proficiency rates for students.
In a blog post, he said that “ultimately, this disinvestment means more of our earliest learners will not have access to the high-quality education they deserve, and we will continue to see the impact of this in our third-grade reading levels and high school readiness.”
“It also means that Delaware has been lying to its babies and toddlers,” he said. “Our state is lying to our babies and toddlers when it tells them they are of the highest importance to us — but then it makes decisions that undercut their early development.
“Delaware is lying to our babies and toddlers when it teaches them it’s important to share — then cannot find the $4 million needed to support our earliest learners from a budget of $4 billion.”
Contact Jessica Bies at (302) 324-2881 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jessicajbies. Looking for more education news? Visit delawareonline.com/education.
If you go
What: Public hearing on Department of Education budget
When: 2-4 p.m., Nov. 21
Where: Senate chambers, Legislative Hall, Dover