By 2020, child care providers must earn a minimum rating to receive public funding. Right now in Franklin County, less than a third qualify.

Is your child care provider shimmering with stars? That’s a question parents should be pondering as an important deadline looms for Ohio’s Step Up to Quality initiative, which rates licensed child care centers and home-based programs.

By July 2020, all providers must earn at least the lowest Step Up to Quality rating—one star—to qualify for state reimbursement for students who receive publicly funded child care.

And in Franklin County, most still fall short.

As of early December, less than one-third of the 721 providers serving students on public funding had a star rating, according to Eric Karolak, CEO of Action for Children, a nonprofit child care resource and referral agency. That means about 23,000 children are cared for by unrated providers. If those centers don’t meet the 2020 deadline, parents will have to move their children to star-rated providers to remain eligible for Ohio Department of Job and Family Services dollars.

“There’s still time, but folks need to be thinking about this,” cautioned Karolak. “Child care is a necessity for families to be able to lift themselves out of poverty.”

Behind the Ratings

The state set up the star rating system in 2013 to ensure that Ohio children receive a good academic start in preparation for kindergarten, said Bret Crow, communications director for the Department of Job and Family Services (JFS). It requires, among other things, that facilities have an approved curriculum, extensive background on each student, a self-assessment program, classroom activity plans and staff who meet certain education requirements.

Providers can receive two-, three-, four- and five-star ratings if they meet additional benchmarks. In 2025, all centers must attain at least three stars to qualify for state funding.

“Highly rated programs require continuing education for teachers and staff, use child assessments to guide learning and development, and take additional steps to help prepare children for kindergarten,” Crow said. “Our research found that kids who attended star-rated programs were better prepared for kindergarten.”

Brittany Jackson, Step Up to Quality coordinator for Action for Children, said the standards are based on well-researched best practices, such as continually updating training for teachers, but they can be a hurdle for many providers.

“The field of child care has to catch up with the standards,” she said. “A lot of child care owners are not educators; they went into the field to care for kids. So a lot of these standards are like a foreign language to them.”

That’s where organizations such as Action for Children come in. Jackson reaches out to centers that aren’t rated, sometimes knocking on their doors, to offer free help in understanding—and meeting—the standards.

The agency also offers training workshops for child care staff members and free coaching for those trying to obtain their child development associate credential. “We try to see them through the whole process,” Jackson said.

Crow said his department also is pushing hard to help providers by:

Switching eight employees from child care licensing duties to new responsibilities helping providers earn ratings. Providing two different curricula that providers can use at no cost rather than purchasing their own. More than doubling its investment in education scholarships for child care teachers, to $2 million.

With the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Child Care Resource and Referral Association, JFS has set aside $1.1 million for POWER Ohio, a new program that provides wage supplements for some teachers, administrators and family child care providers who complete higher education courses while employed in early childhood education. 

Rating Rewards

Statewide, 52 percent of the 2,728 centers that provide publicly funded child care for 100,712 children are star rated, Crow said.

That includes Our Kidz Enrichment and Child Care Center on East Livingston Avenue in Columbus, which has had a five-star rating since last year. “We wanted to set ourselves apart from the many other programs like ours,” said Wilbert Owens, director of early childhood education. “We are the only five-star, independently owned program in our community.”

All 57 children who attend the center receive public funding, and Owens said there is a waiting list for infants and toddlers. Because of its top rating, the state reimburses Our Kidz at a higher per-child rate than unrated centers or those with fewer stars. As a result, the center can pay its teachers more, Owens said. “It’s definitely been worth it,” he said. “The goal is for children to benefit and that’s who truly does.” He said elementary school teachers report the center’s students are well-adjusted and prepared for kindergarten.

Lisa Lanning, director of two David’s Extended Care centers in Canal Winchester, has a one-star rating for her site at Indian Trail Elementary School and is working on becoming rated at her second location, at David’s United Church of Christ. “We serve publicly funded children and we want to be able to continue to do that,” Lanning said. “We’re a good program, but we want to take it up a notch. There’s always room for improvement.”

Few child care programs in Canal Winchester are rated, Lanning said, and she hopes attaining a rating at the church location, which serves preschoolers and kindergartners, will help increase enrollment.

She said she and her staff have received plenty of technical assistance from the state and Action for Children, including a “coach” who made sure paperwork and other requirements were completed on time. “At first we’d go to training after training, and afterwards we’d wonder how we were ever going to get everything done,” she said. “The coaching really helped a lot.”

Journey Chatfield, Lanning’s niece, recently enrolled her 3-year-old daughter, Zoriah, at the David’s church location. Zoriah had been in a star-rated center, but Chatfield, a single mom whose child care is publicly funded, said the facility had high staff turnover and showed children too much television. “Just walking through the halls at David’s, I can feel a difference,” she said.

Chatfield, 24, who works as a waitress, said she is aware of the star-rating system, but knows many parents who haven’t heard of the initiative or the looming deadline. 

More Help

In October, The Columbus Foundation concluded a special drive, Critical Need Alert: Our Kids, which raised more than $2.4 million—162 percent of its goal—to increase the number of child care providers with star ratings and to help homeless youth.

Dan A. Sharpe, vice president for community research and grants management for the foundation, said a portion of the funds raised will go to Action for Children, Columbus State Community College and Future Ready Columbus.

Action for Children will use the money to train child care providers about star ratings, Columbus State will help fund provider credentialing, and Future Ready’s share will go toward its mission as an education-focused think tank, Sharpe said. “We’re thinking of our kids, for now and for the future,” he said, adding that research bears out the vital importance of early childhood learning. “Everyone should have an opportunity to access high-quality child care so they can have the best competitive edge in life. If a kiddo is not able to maximize that, it’s extremely detrimental for the rest of their life.”

Action for Children’s Karolak said despite all the help providers are receiving, he worries that some won’t meet the deadline, leaving families in the lurch. “It’s a do-able thing, but providers need to focus and move ahead with it, and parents need to be working to find star-rated programs,” he said. “Child care is not just baby-sitting or custodial care. If we want children to be kindergarten-ready, we have to be serious about what happens to them in child care centers.”