The Columbus Dispatch
By Anna Staver
Dawn Blalock didn't want to switch to Ohio's five-star rating system for child care facilities at first.
She'd been the program manager at Little Miracles Early Development Center in Columbus for nearly a decade and felt proud of the work she'd done. Now, the state was saying she had to change things and file all this paperwork to earn a single star.
"We were really reluctant because we didn't understand it," Blalock said.
Still, she got on board because the Step-Up to Quality star system passed in 2012 would become mandatory by 2020 for any facility that accepted kids in the Publicly Funded Child Care program. And all of Blalock's kids were getting that state aid.
"Once we started doing the steps, it changed the whole framing structure of how we operate as a company," she said. "We do regular assessments. We do developmental screenings. We hire lead teachers who have associate's or bachelor's degrees."
Basically, she thinks Step-Up to Quality helped prepare her kids for kindergarten.
That's important because 28% of all economically disadvantaged children in Franklin County passed their kindergarten readiness tests in 2018, according to the Ohio Early Childhood Race and Rural Equity Report. Conversely, 60% of kids from higher-income homes passed those exams.
The program is a winner in Blalock's eyes, but it's a problem in the mind of Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima.
He thinks all the hoops star-rated places have to jump through exacerbate Ohio's child care shortage and push quality providers away. He thinks the payment increases Step-Up gives for every new star could present a $1 billion budget problem over the next decade. And Huffman thinks the ratings don't influence the way most parents shop for child care.
So, he dropped a legal change in the Senate version of Ohio's two-year budget that would remove the star mandate. Facilities would still get paid extra for earning stars, but those without them could accept public assistance kids.
Ohio facing child care crisis
Finding child care that could take your kid was hard before the pandemic. Now, it's reached what experts describe as a full-blown crisis.
"We have 2,000 jobs available within a ten-mile radius of Lima," said Joe Patton, the director of Allen County's job and family services office. "The problem is there is limited child care availability right now."
He's telling parents with multiple kids that they need to drive to three separate facilities if they want slots for their three children. Part of that is the pandemic, but Patton is convinced the other part is Step-Up to Quality.
In September it became mandatory for providers accepting state dollars to have at least one star. By 2025, they will need three stars. And he's seen dozens of providers walk away.
"We had 60 eligible providers in 2012," Patton said. "Now we are down to 17."
It's the mom-and-pop facilities that are disappearing, he said. The in-home places for 20 or 30 years by someone (usually a woman of color) who lacks a formal early childhood education degree. Or the church preschool staffed by a small army of volunteers.
"These women will tell you, 'My kids know how to read better than the kids in Lima City Schools,'" Huffman said. But they can't afford the degrees and/or they don't have time for the paperwork.
That's the decision Andrea Stout reached. She runs a preschool and child care center called Learning Tree in Lima. Her church congregation raised money for a few scholarships, but the rest of their public assistance kids were turned away.
Rising costs for Ohio's Step-Up to Quality program
The other problem Huffman sees with the Step-Up to Quality program is its rising costs.
His staff estimated that the total cost of the Publicly Funded Child Care program will increase by 80% from 2021 to 2025 – leaving Ohio on the hook for $641.8 million more than it's paying today by 2024.
It's possible the federal government will cover part of those costs, but Huffman said the state shouldn't pin its financial plans on that hope.
He couldn't estimate how much Ohio would save by making the stars optional again. That depends on how many non-participating centers get approved to take kids.
Senators will debate the child care provision and others in the coming weeks and will likely make more changes before the June 30 deadline to pass a budget.
Concerns that changes would sacrifice quality education
Increasing access to child care is great, said Shannon Jones, a former Republican state senator who runs Groundwork Ohio. But what is the point if you have to sacrifice quality?
A recent analysis by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center found that quality child care and early education increased high school graduation rates while reducing the need for public assistance, criminal justice and other social services.
"The cost savings of reduced involvement in the criminal justice system alone pays for the cost of expanding access to quality child care more than 2.5 times over," according to Groundwork's interpretation of the report.
If paperwork is the problem, we should find a way to fix that, said Joy Bivens, the director for Franklin County Job and Family Services. If it's a money problem for centers, we should help them pay for the upgrades.
That's what her county commissioners did. They invested $4 million to help child care facilities across the county earn their stars.
"It’s hard for me not to look at this as a racial equity issue," Bivens said. "Seventy-three percent of our African American children were not ready for kindergarten ... We are hurting families if we say this is no longer necessary."
And that's the thing that's been keeping Blalock up at night.
She grew up in Columbus' Hilltop neighborhood and knows what it's like to feel like the deck is stacked against you. She understands why parents sit in her parking lot while their kids eat dinner.
"We're breaking generational barriers. We're setting these children up to become financially secure and stable working adults," Blalock said. "Please don't devalue those lives."
Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.