Parents will soon have a better way to gauge the quality of most child-care and early education programs in Kentucky thanks to an overhaul of the state’s system for evaluating providers.
State officials are revamping the STARS for KIDS NOW rating system to help parents wade through the confusion of child-care options and encourage higher levels of instruction and professional development among providers.
“I think it’s very difficult today for parents to make decisions about child care,” said Terry Tolan, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood. “So often they do it based on word-of-mouth or … based on hours or proximity to their home.”
Parents will begin to see the changes next year as providers are expected to publicly display their new ratings the same way restaurants post health inspection scores. The STARS website also lists the scores — one to four stars — for participating programs, though the current ratings reflect the old system.
Tolan said the new ratings should be complete by the end of 2016.
“We know that children who are in high-quality early childhood programs are more prepared for kindergarten, and that’s really the bottom line,” she said.
Kentucky was considered a pioneer when it launched the STARS system in 2001. But officials have been planning an overhaul since an evaluation four years ago revealed that updates are needed to reflect the latest research in child development.
The state legislature passed reforms this year to expand the type of programs that are eligible and roll out the changes that officials have discussed for several years, using the bulk of a $44.3 million federal Race to the Top grant.
The old system rates programs on staff-to-child ratios, curriculum, parental involvement, staff training and other key criteria. In similar fashion, the new rating will focus on instructional quality, administrative practices, staff qualifications and family engagement, and officials are adding a new five-star tier.
Tolan said it will better match what experts have gleaned over the past 15 years on how children learn and grow — such as a greater emphasis on interaction with adults to foster language development.
For some parents, like Paula Nash and Chelsie Wise, the ratings play a large role in what day cares they enroll their children in. Both have daughters enrolled in Jefferson Community and Technical College’s Early Childhood Development Center, the city’s only four-star rated day care center. They received the rating in January.
Ratings, reviews and curriculum greatly impacted Nash’s decision on where to send her daughter, Zoe, while she took classes at JCTC.
“Well, I’ve heard really good reviews and rates and nothing but good feedback on (the Center),” she said. “Zoe had never been in day care before so I paid attention to those types of things.”
For Wise, another student, her decision to send daughter Amelia to the site focused on ratings and convenience of the center being close to the JCTC campus.
“When I first enrolled her they were a three-star program, but I knew they were actively working toward being the first-four star program,” she said.
Neither knew about the new STAR ratings policy change, but Wise said she’s glad to hear about it.
Right now, participation in the state ranking is only voluntary, but that’s also changing.
Lawmakers are requiring all programs that receive public funding to obtain a score. Of about 3,000 programs that get public funds, around 1,000 have chosen not to receive a STARS rating in the past.
The system will remain voluntary for the roughly 650 private providers operating in Kentucky, but more than 150 have chosen to participate.
Meanwhile, state officials are hiring quality coaches and raters to help programs that want to improve their standing, and millions of dollars in incentives will be available to increase reimbursements for programs that enhance performance.
House Education Chairman Derrick Graham, a Frankfort Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said he hopes the investment will help reduce Kentucky’s achievement gap.
According to the latest statewide screening, half of Kentucky’s kindergarteners begin the school year lacking basic skills for academic success.
Graham said he would like to eventually make the rating system mandatory for all programs, regardless of their funding source.
“We know it works,” he said. “It’s just a question of putting it in place and allowing daycare providers to understand that there are some potential resources that are available if they are willing to improve their ratings.”
Under the current system, only about 1 percent of participants earn four stars, and only about 9 percent earn three. Tolan said it’s designed to make a four-star rating difficult to achieve, and often operational costs get in the way.
At the Early Learning Campus at the University of Louisville, director Dianna Zink said one of the issues with the system is a requirement for employees to have a particular certification even though their students workers are in the process of obtaining higher-level qualifications.
She said that glitch has held the program to three stars rather than four. Still, she praised STARS as an valuable tool for improving quality and standards among providers.
“There’s pros and cons for all rating systems,” Zink said.
By Mike Wynn