Prodded by ratings system, child care workers head to college in droves

2013-06-30T07:30:00Z Prodded by ratings system, child care workers head to college in drovesDOUG ERICKSON | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6149

After Wisconsin started rating child care centers a couple of years ago, Stacy Reinacher knew how the phone calls from prospective customers were going to go.

Her small, in-home center in Madison earned just two stars out of five — the most common rating and nothing to be ashamed of, yet disappointing to some parents.

“You’d say two stars, and they’d be like, ‘Really, that’s it?’ And then you wouldn’t hear from them again,” said Reinacher, 37, who operates Stacy’s Quality Daycare.

What tripped up Reinacher was the same thing keeping so many providers from getting higher ratings: a lack of college credits. The rating system, called YoungStar, puts a premium on educational attainment. Centers are stuck at a two-star rating unless at least some of their workers get college-credit-based training.

That’s sent hundreds of child care workers, including Reinacher, back to college — or to college for the first time.

It’s not an easy proposition. Caring for children is exhausting work, and turnover is high in the field. Then there’s the financial aspect.

“These folks aren’t making much money — the average is about $11 an hour,” said Dave Edie, who led the state’s child care office for years. “The question becomes, ‘Why should I get a degree and continue to make $11 an hour?’”

The state is trying to address these barriers, particularly through a popular scholarship program.

Some child care workers welcome this move toward college training, saying it will professionalize the field and finally put to rest the “baby sitter” label. Others, especially veteran providers with decades of experience, say the emphasis on college training is misplaced, even insulting.

Regardless, YoungStar has triggered a fundamental shift in child care in the state.

“I’ve often told my employees that there will come a day when you won’t be able to work in this field without having at least some college training,” said Sharlot Bogart, owner of Teddy’s Place in Sun Prairie and a child care provider for more than 40 years. “That day is coming very soon.”

Four key areas

The YoungStar system rates centers from one to five stars, although two stars is really the practical base. (One-star centers don’t meet basic health and safety standards and usually are in the process of being shut down.)

A center gets rated in four key areas: staff educational qualifications; learning environment; the professionalism of business practices; and the approach to child health and wellness.

Of the 4,571 child care centers that have been rated through YoungStar, the biggest chunk by far, 2,910 or 64 percent, earned two stars. That means they meet all state health and safety standards.

State officials always said most centers would get two stars, at least initially. That’s because the state’s previous approach to licensing focused on health and safety. YoungStar pushes a center to think much more about its early learning curriculum — and whether it has the qualified staff to teach it.

“The better trained the staff members are, the more knowledgeable they are about the stages of child development, and we feel that’s crucial,” Edie said. “You can even have a fairly questionable setting, but if the teachers know how to work with kids, they can do great things.”

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, where Edie now works, recently crunched the numbers and found the greatest barrier to a center moving up to three stars is a lack of staff education.

Pride, self-improvement

Reinacher does not have a college degree. But on a recent afternoon at her in-home center, she pulled a hefty binder from a shelf and paged through the records from all of the continuing education classes she’s taken in the past decade — 192 hours’ worth.

Those non-credit classes improved her skills and helped her maintain her state license, but they didn’t help her move up the rating’s ladder. She couldn’t become a three-star center unless she earned at least 12 college credits — typically four college courses. Her competitiveness kicked in.

“I wanted to better myself,” she said. “And I didn’t want to be a two-star center like everyone else.”

So 18 months ago, she began taking online classes through UW-Platteville, often sitting down to hours of homework after an exhausting day of caring for six children.

She earned a three-star rating a couple of months ago and is continuing to take classes in hopes of one day acquiring enough credits for a two-year associates degree, giving her a shot at an even higher rating. At her current pace, that would take another three years.

Tuition assist

The classes are sometimes a physical drain but have not been a financial one for Reinacher. To encourage education, the state offers scholarships to child care workers through a $4.7 million annual program that goes by the acronym TEACH.

The scholarships predate YoungStar, but the demand for them has increased dramatically in the last two years. It would be hard to find a government program more beloved right now.

“TEACH is doing amazing things,” said Krystle Lisk, owner of Just 4 Kidz in Cuba City, a two-star center.

She’s taking the second of six college courses she needs for her center to move up to a three-star rating. Her scholarship pays 55 percent of the tuition, plus a stipend for gas and books. Her cost per course is about $400.

The scholarships are even more helpful to employees of child care centers because the employer also ponies up some money. And once the courses are completed, the employer agrees to provide either a one-time bonus (usually around $200) or a raise of 1 to 2 percent.

For Christina Smith, 32, an employee of Play Haven Child Care in Sun Prairie, the scholarship means she pays only 20 percent of the costs, or about $150 per course at Madison Area Technical College. In return, she commits to staying with her employer for at least a year after her scholarship contract is completed.

Smith works full time, plus races to classes over lunch and at night.

“Believe it or not, I’m actually really enjoying it — I’m on the Dean’s List, I’m earning high honors — and I’m able to apply what I’m learning directly in the classroom,” she said.

She’s one of 1,089 child care workers across the state on a TEACH scholarship right now. Funding for the program is stable, and so far the program has been able to enroll all applicants who meet eligibility guidelines, said Autumn Gehri of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, which runs the program for the state.

Big motivator

There’s another big motivator in this push toward college credits. Centers that care for low-income children get more money through a state-subsidy program if they have more stars. That’s part of the state’s goal of getting more low-income children into higher-quality child care.

When YoungStar kicked in, centers rated two stars actually lost 5 percent of their state reimbursement. This was especially galling to these centers, because the overall reimbursement rate for everyone has been frozen since 2006.

“We’d done nothing wrong, yet our wages essentially were being cut,” said Jaime Steindorf, owner of centers in Columbus and Rio, both called Braids N’ Britches.

Her Columbus center initially earned two stars. Steindorf said she sat down her employees and “begged” them to consider college training. To get three stars, at least two of her four lead classroom teachers needed to each pass two college-level courses, and she needed to complete courses as well.

Five of her eight employees signed on, and the center now is a three-star. Steindorf has mixed feelings about YoungStar.

“Honestly, I have to say that the two most highly educated people I ever hired turned out to be my two least-desirable teachers,” she said. “I think education is important, but experience should count for something as well.”

Dynamic profession

This has become a common complaint among veterans in the field, said Karen Natoli, a coordinator of the early childhood education program at Madison Area Technical College. Natoli supports YoungStar but sympathizes with experienced providers who now need credit-based training.

“It’s almost insulting to them because, frankly, many of these providers are wonderful and have been doing high-quality child care for years,” Natoli said.

The state has responded by working with colleges to offer classes that grant credit for prior learning, through mechanisms such as opt-out tests, direct classroom observation and portfolios that document skills.

MATC tries to honor what these providers have done by drafting them as mentors for younger students. Yet it also stresses to these experienced providers the value of credit-based education, Natoli said.

“The brain research in just the last 10 years is so different from what I studied in college,” she said. “I feel like I’m always learning something new, and that’s the approach we’re trying to bring to this, to help make every teacher more exceptional.”

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(7) Comments

  1. Springdalegeorge
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    Springdalegeorge - July 01, 2013 10:27 am
    Actually Youngstar is a market driven reform used in a wide range of states including many Republiocan ones. The Youngstar approach was first proposed in 1999 and based on existing programs aleady operating in South Carolina. . A number of the early states to adopt the approach were southern states whcih foiund themselves way behind in terms of child care quality and having difficulty competing for high tech employees they needed to attract (whcih is also why Madison adopted the local violuntary accreditation system 40 years ago as an economic strategy to encourage the growth of high skilled high wage businesses in Madison - that strategy seems to have worked well). The downside to Wisconsin's approach is it is the only one that is punitive - a development under the Walker administration- where programs meeting already pretty good standards (I think Wisconsin is 23rd down from 10th in 1996) are punished by a 5% cut for meeting state standards. Current federal policies related to child care , which includes possibily the purest educational free market voucher system in the country, were created in the Nixon adminsitration. An attempt to totally loosen sttandards under welfare reform and Tommy Thompson- provisional care led to the child care payment scandal in Milwaukee county. (the monitorring problems there were local at the time as Provisional care is handled by the counties not the state). Market systems can be useful in addressing some problems in delivery of services. Alone though they do not lead necessarily lead to consistent quality. Sadly our discussions related to this tend to go to extremes of the left and right instead of looking at what can be practically done within a free market model and what cannot. Youngstar is an attempt to improve the system in a free market fashion with some state support.
  2. MadisonMatters
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    MadisonMatters - June 30, 2013 10:13 pm
    Siriusly.... This program was put in place by the liberal, democrat Jim Dolyle.
  3. toobad
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    toobad - June 30, 2013 5:59 pm
    Yes, The local bureaucrats are just trying to curry favor with the messiah
  4. FactsOrFiction
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    FactsOrFiction - June 30, 2013 3:56 pm
    This is a somewhat strange article. The State always had a requirement for day care workers. And a department in place to oversee such things. Now all of that was cut by Walker when he came in but the requirements were left in....strange, huh? Anyways, the day care 'industry' came up with an exception period of six months before the workers were able to be certified in, so that made them essentially untaught, cunertified, minimum wage workers looking after our kids.

    So , again, the article is somewhat strange. Nothing has changed. Not even the 'rating system' is changing the basic requirements.

    As to toobad's inane comment of needing college degrees for daycare, all of the top educational countries (that would be in Scandinavia, so you don't have to hurt your little mind coming up with the counties), do require this. And their children start off the right way learning and keep on learning. And they have a good reason for this. It works.
  5. ButSiriuslyFolks
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    ButSiriuslyFolks - June 30, 2013 2:12 pm
    Yes, of course! That's why this was a STATE initiative! Obama is TOTALLY behind it!

    Oh, wait....
  6. toobad
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    toobad - June 30, 2013 12:26 pm
    Well if 0bama gets his way all the day care center employees will need college degrees and have to join the government daycare union.
  7. ButSiriuslyFolks
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    ButSiriuslyFolks - June 30, 2013 10:12 am
    Republicans should be ashamed of this. A government department placing unreasonable regulations on private businesses? Picking winners and losers by funding those who jump through their governmental hoops?

    Isn't this everything the GOP has railed against? Or is there some interesting loophole to the usual argument? Isn't Obama to blame?

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