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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”