Strama Bill Would Pay Childcare Centers More for High Marks on State Evaluation

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Mark-StramaFor years, state Rep. Mark Strama has been searching for ways to improve Texas’ network of child care providers, and make it easier for parents to find the best ones. Now he thinks he’s got an answer.

Texas gets federal money to provide low-income families with childcare, so Strama’s wants to change the way Texas distributes that cash—to pay childcare centers more per child if they get score well on a state rating system. Parents can spend the federal childcare money on whatever provider they want—even childcare at their church or their job, or a relative who watches their kids during the day. Childcare centers that spend money on, say, teacher training don’t get paid any better than someone who lets kids watch TV all day.

The Austin Democrat’s House Bill 376, would change that, in part by beefing up an early childhood education certification program called Texas Rising Star. The bill would also raise the stakes of evaluation in an already intense sector, where all sorts of competing interests scrapping over limited funding for early childhood education. And by paying some providers more per child, it would leave fewer total kids covered by the federal money.

Kara Johnson from Texans Care for Children says Texas Rising Star is the state’s best bet for measuring childcare provider quality, but that the program has been underfunded for years. “Texas Rising Star hasn’t been looked at in a decade, so we need to upgrade it, we need to give it the funding it had before 2003,” Johnson says. Today, childcare centers can still volunteer to be rated by the system—based on a dozen measures ranging from children’s safety to parental involvement—but Johnson says this bill would help update the standards and encourage providers to improve their programs.

“We want to make sure that the use of taxpayer dollars are worth the investment. Especially in childcare, you have such a range of quality … and some are incredibly low quality,” she says. “Having a system like this in place, it educates parents on how to look for quality.”

Strama figures this move is long overdue. “I’m at a loss to understand why we haven’t done that all along,” he says.

“It makes a huge difference developmentally, the difference between being in a high quality situation and a low quality situation,” he says. “The people who do it right, they are spending more on the services they provide each kid, and they ought to be compensated for that.”

There is a drawback to the plan, Strama and Johnson acknowledge: so long as Texas pulls down the same amount of federal money, paying more for high-rated providers means fewer kids would get served.

“That’s the really gut-wrenching part of this,” Strama says. “It means that you may end up serving fewer kids. And that’s a terrible choice. But it’s a worse choice to continue to fund low-quality services at the same rate that we fund high quality services, and to put no incentive into the marketplace for high quality.”

Today, programs already get a 5 percent pay hike if they have some kind of outside designation of quality. Strama’s bill would boost that further, providing five percent more than the minimum rate for a “two-star” program, seven percent more for a “three-star” program, and nine percent more for programs that earn the highest, “four-star” rating.

The bill would also set up a working group to revise the program’s guidelines by mid-2014.

Early childhood education is a messy world encompassing childcare, Head Start and pre-kindergarten programs with separate—but often overlapping—missions and funding sources. At the most basic level, though, any one of those programs should be a place where parents can leave their kids during the workday, and where kids get some sort of boost to their development.

“Legislators think of ‘early childhood education’ and they think it’s all one sector,” Johnson says. “But in reality, you have three sectors that are looking at one to two pots of money to try and improve their systems.”

Childcare, Head Start and pre-K providers can all apply to get evaluated by Texas Rising Star, but under Strama’s bill, the only ones who’d get more money for high ratings are childcare centers.

The state offers a separate rating for “Pre-K Centers of Excellence,” which, as we wrote last week, is a measurement ultimately based on four-year-olds’ scores on reading tests.

Johnson says that by strengthening the Texas Rising Star program, Strama’s bill could eventually help establish a pecking order for the ratings, making Texas Rising Star an umbrella program that takes all the other ratings systems into account.

“Texas Rising Star is the backbone of an entire system we’re trying to build in the state of Texas,” she says one that includes things like parental involvement, nutrition and safety, for kids from birth to age 13. It would be similar to quality rating systems some other states have already developed.

But Lonnie Hutson, who owns a string of childcare centers around Houston, worries that after giving top billing to Texas Rising Star, Texas could turn its back on another popular measure, called Texas School Ready!

Strama introduced a similar bill late last session, and when it came up from a committee hearing, Hutson was the only one who testified against it. Hutson says Texas School Ready!, developed at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, is the “absolute platinum version” of early childhood education programs. (He believes in it so much, in fact, he’s the lead Houston area recruiter for the program.) Bill Hammond with the Texas Association of Business is also a big fan.

The reading assessments behind the “Pre-K Centers of Excellence” rating were, before this year, built into the Texas School Ready! program. Hutson says that’s always been part of the program’s strength: there’s a way to measure whether the program is actually improving kids’ reading.

He says Texas Rising Star, on the other hand, “looks at inputs. It looks at things that should make your school good, but doesn’t have a feedback mechanism that proves that your school has been successful.”

So what Hutson wants to see is some protection for Texas School Ready! built into Strama’s bill. “They are showing a lot more deference this year,” he says, by including a spot for a representative from Texas School Ready! in the working group. Johnson says Texas School Ready! enjoys broad support, and she doesn’t expect Strama’s bill would weaken it.

Hutson says advocacy groups like Texans Care for Children have been the driving force behind this bill, and he just wants to make sure “folks who run the centers” get their input too. “There needs to be enough incentive to make it worth the time and effort and expense” to meet new, higher standards, he says. “Because, obviously, putting this into effect in a school is not an easy thing.”