Failing Grades: States' Standards for Child Care Centers
Who's watching who's watching the children? The federal government leaves this task to the states. But states are failing to ensure that childcare centers are safe, according to a report released today by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.
Parents assume that if a child care center has obtained a state license, it must meet some basic standards of child safety and personnel training. But in many places, the license means very little, said Linda K. Smith, NACCRRA's executive director.
"A license on a wall does not mean that a center has ever been inspected," Smith said. "This is inexcusable."
NACCRRA examined state regulations and oversight in 50 states plus the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense, which runs its own network of child-care centers. Each state was judged using a scorecard created by the association that gave states points for policies that address health, safety, and quality of childcare providers -- such as how frequently the facilities are inspected, whether caregivers must go through background checks, and whether directors have any training in child development.
The average score was an F. No state earned an A or B, and only one -- Washington, D.C. -- earned a C. The Department of Defense got the top score, with 131 of 150 possible points or a B grade. Unlike states, the military must comply with standards under the Military Child Care Act of 1989.
Here is a breakdown of the states with the strongest and weakest standards in child care licensure, according to NACCRRA:
In 2007, the association conducted its first examination of how well states were measuring up, finding few state regulations to ensure even basic standards of care. This year, NACCRRA saw some improvement, with the average score rising to 83 from 70 (out of 150 possible points), and the District of Columbia, in particular, jumping to second in the rankings after sitting at 25 two years before.
But as the title of its report urged, we can do better. Some areas of concern prompted by the report:
Staff are hired without background checks: Only 11 states require what NACCRRA considers comprehensive background checks for personnel. (In 2007, it was just two.) Only 16 states check to see whether childcare workers are on sex-offender registries.
Inspections are infrequent. In California, for example, licensed centers are inspected once every 5 years. NACCRRA wants to see unannounced inspections every 3 months.
Results of inspections are hard to find, with only 17 states posting results on the Internet.
State licensing offices have unmanageable caseloads. The overseer-to-program ratio is more than 1-to-140 in 16 states. Put another way, in those states, just one staff member oversees 140 programs.
Child-to-staff ratios are not in line with standards set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Only the District of Columbia requires its centers to meet NAEYC's criteria for child-staff ratios. (These criteria vary by children's ages and class sizes; an example is the 1:4 ratio required in infant and toddler settings.)
States can solve some of these problems without huge infusions of money. For example, it requires only a modest budget increase to check employee rolls against sex-offender registries. But changes in state and federal laws will be required to set a minimum bar of quality and to assess penalties when centers do not comply. Other factors -- like child-to-staff ratios -- cannot be addressed unless centers either increase their tuition (which many families are already struggling to afford) or find other sources of funding to pay for more staff members.
It is time to wake up to the problems of lax oversight and start addressing these gaping holes. The upcoming reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, scheduled for this year, provides Congress and the new administration an opportunity to rethink existing approaches and provide new resources for childcare oversight and quality.
NACCRRA's emphasis on staff training and education is encouraging. We applaud efforts to move the conversation away from labeling childcare centers as "babysitters" and toward "educational settings."
"To think that childcare is not an educational setting is crazy," Smith said, noting how much parents see what their children can learn, even in their earliest months of life. "We are urging states to make this consistent across all settings." In fact, last month, NACCRA released a report called Unequal Opportunities for Preschoolers: Differing Standards for Licensed Child Care Centers and State-Funded Pre-K Programs. It showed weaker standards in childcare settings compared to state-run pre-K programs.
As that report and today's rankings make clear, we have a long way to go before typical childcare centers in this country can rise from relatively unregulated "babysitting" to high-quality, safe and nurturing environments for today's children.