Chicago to launch mandatory rating system for early childhood providers

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on Wednesday that starting next July, government-funded child care, Head Start and preschool providers will be forced to participate in a quality rating in which they can earn up to five stars.

Parents will be able to see what rating the provider got via a web portal. “No other city has a comprehensive early education standard,” Emanuel said.

But at the moment, it isn’t clear how much it will cost to evaluate the programs or help them improve and Emanuel doesn’t yet know where he will find the money.

Emanuel noted that earlier this month he pressed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to award Illinois with a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant and that money could go toward implementing the new rating system.

“I think we should win Race to the Top,” he said. “We are doubling-down for children.”

The rating system announced by Emanuel will piggyback on one already developed by the state. The state system is voluntary and only about 100 child care centers in Chicago currently participate.

The new rating system will be required for every program that is funded through the City of Chicago. That includes most Head Start programs in schools and community agencies, as well as programs at a number of private child-care centers.

It was not immediately clear whether licensed and license-exempt home child care settings that receive state Child Care Assistance Program funding (offered to low-income parents for the time they are at work or in school) would be required to participate.

The new rating system is coming from recommendations of Emanuel’s early childhood task force, which began work in July. Complete recommendations from the task force have not yet been released.

Among the other topics that the task force looked into: how to better integrate funding for preschool and child care programs; and how to reach young children who don’t currently attend preschool.

Beth Swanson, who serves as Emanuel’s deputy chief of staff for education, said that she and others are mapping out strategies to make the funding system more seamless.

Moving forward, a new 10-member committee that includes Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard will work on these issues.

Currently, the state Quality Counts program allows providers to earn up to four stars. As part of the state’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge application, that will increase to five.

At each star level, a provider’s child care reimbursement is increased from the state’s base rate. The increase could reach up to 20 percent for a top-tier program.

Programs must earn one star level before progressing to the next; each can require months of work. Earning just one star is considered an achievement.

As of early September, a significant portion of the state’s child care centers – nearly 450, out of about 3,000 – have earned Quality Counts awards. But just three have achieved the highest rating, four stars.   

Fewer than 250 of the state’s 10,500 licensed home care providers were participating, with just one earning four stars.

Licensed child care centers and homes must be rated with the Environmental Rating Scale, a measure of the quality of their educational environment.  To earn three or four stars, the programs must also achieve certain scores on evaluations of their business administration practices.

The rating system also has educational requirements that staff must meet at each level, topping out with a requirement that 30 percent of a center’s teaching staff have the equivalent of an associate’s degree in early childhood education or child development.

For licensed home child care settings, the education rules top out with a requirement that staff have at least 6 semester hours of college classes in child development (or what the state considers a higher level of education, such as a non-college Child Development Associate or Certified Childcare Professional credential.)

License-exempt child care providers can earn up to three stars, and up to a 20 percent increase in their rates, by attending training sessions on topics like health, nutrition, safety, and child development – a total of 48 hours of training by the time they have earned three stars.