Early learning committee recommends new child care standards

Keywords Child Care / Regulations
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Courtney Hott, the director of ELAC, outlines a subcommittee on childcare workforce issues before the Early Learning Advisory Committee. (Indiana Capital Chronicle photo/Whitney Downard)

The Early Learning Advisory Committee voted Wednesday to advance a new set of standards for evaluating child care centers around the state, with an anticipated three-year rollout starting in 2024.

Recommendations will be sent to relevant state divisions housed in the Family and Social Services Administration as well as the governor’s office, which will move forward with implementation. The General Assembly tasked the early learning committee earlier this year with revising and replacing the current quality rating and improvement system, called Paths to QUALITY, and voting on new guidance by the end of 2023.

“It’s supposed to help parents make good decisions in child care,” Jeffrey Capizzano, the president of Policy Equity Group, told the committee. “This is all about supporting families and … how families can navigate the child care system to find the type of child care that works best for them — both in terms of quality and in terms of other preferences that they might have.”

The committee engaged the Policy Equity Group, which has a $172,000 state contract, to research and compile recommendations for consideration. The recommendations presented by Capizzano passed the committee unanimously.

Considerations for recommendations

Capizzano noted that families had a range of preferences when it came to child care, with some prioritizing collaboration and curiosity while others wanted reading-specific education. But beyond that, the state had a role in incentivizing providers to join the state’s rating system to bolster state policies, such as reading proficiency.

A rating system is required for states to receive a federal Child Care and Development Black Grant and associated dollars can offset the prohibitive cost of child care for families. But ratings are voluntary for providers and many choose to operate unlicensed without public evaluations.

“We don’t want to make our requirements actually limit the access of families to providers,” Capizzano said. “The goal is going towards participation.”

In particular, FSSA staff rating child care centers receiving public funding needed to consider the level and quality of adult-child interactions alongside their curriculum and kindergarten readiness assessments.

A Level 1 facility, for example, will have met all of the minimum health and safety standards. To go beyond that baseline, providers would need to reach a certain level on adult-child interaction scores, provide evidence that they use a curriculum in all of their classrooms and evaluate child development and learning using the state’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment.

Levels 3 and 4 increase the level of scrutiny across the three core indicators.

Capizzano said that while the state can have a list of approved curricula, other states constantly update those lists with submissions from providers to allow for individuality that still meets a high educational standard.

“We want to make sure that … we can offer a lot of autonomy to providers and the sort of curriculum choices that they have,” Capizzano said.

Additionally, Capizzano said the state’s program needed to be cognizant about provider limitations and work with them to improve their scores through something akin to Quality Enhancement grants, which can cover training and technical assistance.

Adding some sort of “micro-credentialing” to indicate if a specific teacher has training for children with disabilities or specializes in creative arts will strengthen family choice, she said.

“What we’re recommending is not only to sort of have an overall rating but also some indication of the variation that is found within the classroom,” Capizzano said.

In 2024, the state will be tasked with designing a detailed implementation plan, finalizing the ratings systems and creating a communications plan for both families and providers. By 2025, Paths to QUALITY rating visits will be suspended in favor of the new system in a “practice year” to identify final snags.

Child care programs will be rated under the new system by 2026 and the Paths to QUALITY program will sunset once all participating providers have a new rating.

Other committee considerations

One future task ahead of the committee: finding ways to incentivize child care providers to increase wages for staff. An industry-wide staffing shortage, especially for trained staff, dampens center openings. Early Learning Indiana President and CEO Maureen Weber said her own organization had 15% of their classrooms closed due to staffing shortages.

“We’re struggling to get teachers into the classroom and I don’t want to move backwards,” said Erin Donovan, an early childhood professor and department chair at Ivy Tech Community College.

Donovan will head the subcommittee on workforce issues.

The workforce issue extends to the very raters hired to evaluate programs and FSSA’s Courtney Hott, the director of the early learning committee, said. They couldn’t rule out the possibility of needing to ask the General Assembly for additional funding in 2025 but would prioritize utilizing existing funding streams first.

Additionally, the Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning, part of the early learning committee under FSSA, will compile a report on the federal grant dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which expired earlier this year.

Those monies helped FSSA offset the costs of background checks for providers, covered stabilization grants during the upheaval of pandemic-era closures and fund child care vouchers for impoverished families.

The next committee meeting will be Jan. 9, 2024.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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