LINCOLN — It works for hotels and restaurants.
Now Nebraska lawmakers are looking to institute a five-step quality rating system for child care programs.
The proposed system would give parents a way to compare their child care options and pick the best one for their child, said State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, who heads the Health and Human Services Committee.
“I want a system where every parent can see the quality of child care programs and know their child has good, quality care,” she said.
Campbell hopes the system will push child care programs to make improvements that will pay off for the state and society down the road as the children in those programs grow up.
Legislative Bill 507, the Step Up to Quality Child Care Act, won first-round approval in the Legislature on Tuesday. The bill is one of several pieces of legislation this year aimed at making a difference during a child's critical first years of life.
The rating system would be mandatory for some large child care centers but voluntary for all others.
Child care programs would be rated based on several factors, including curriculum, health and safety, professional staff development and outreach to families.
The ratings would be published online starting in 2017. Campbell said the ratings would not be published right away to give programs time to improve.
Martha Mora, owner of the four Bere's Child Care Centers in Omaha, said the proposed rating system sounds like a good idea.
She said it would force child care programs to work on their quality, which would be good for children, and the ratings would make parents more comfortable.
“All day cares should be working at high quality for the kids,” Mora said.
Iowa has had a similar quality rating system for eight years. Campbell modeled her bill after the Iowa program, with some differences.
The Iowa system is voluntary, but the list of participating child care centers is 20 pages long. The list of participating child care providers in homes is 15 pages.
Jennie's House Daycare in Council Bluffs advertises its rating — level 4 out of 5 — on its website.
Co-owner Kathy Olsen said meeting the requirements takes time. Staff have to keep up training. There are extensive evaluations of the building and rooms, sanitary practices, the number and kind of toys, the number of books and more.
But Jennie's House participates because the owners want to meet high standards, she said. It's also something they can show parents.
“It just lets you know that we're maintaining the quality that a child care center should,” Olsen said.
Campbell said research increasingly shows that a child's early years lay the foundation for success in school, work and life.
About 110,000 Nebraska children under age 6 spend time in someone else's care for all or part of the workday.
Good early childhood care and education can help children overcome disadvantages and start school on par with their better-off peers, Campbell said.
She described the issue as one of accountability for public funds.
Nebraska spends nearly $95 million of state and federal funds subsidizing child care for low-income families without requiring the programs to meet any quality standards.
Under LB 507, child care programs that get at least $250,000 a year in child care subsidies would be required to participate. Other child care centers and homes could participate voluntarily.
Participating programs that meet certain quality standards would get bonuses and increased subsidy rates.
The state also would provide scholarships for child care staff to improve their education and would offer technical assistance on quality improvement steps.
An amendment added to the bill would raise the income level at which Nebraska parents could qualify for child care subsidies.
Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln offered an amendment that would push the eligibility level to 130 percent of the federal poverty level. The level is currently 120 percent of poverty.
For a family of three, the change would mean the difference between qualifying with an annual income of $22,908 and qualifying with an income of $24,817. Families qualifying for subsidized child care still must pay a portion of the costs.
Her amendment would cost about $4 million over the next two years.
Establishing the quality rating system would cost another $4 million for the two-year budget.
There were no dissenting votes on the bill, but Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion questioned whether Nebraska should be adding more people to government programs.
Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha said he hopes Nebraska will see at least as much interest in its rating system as Iowa has.
He said he that expects parents will pressure child care programs to participate.
“Child care centers will start competing to improve their quality,” he said.
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