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When Sasha Shunk first opened a child care center in her Maine home nearly 20 years ago, she knew she would have to stand out among the nearly 3,000 other home-based child care providers operating in the state at the time.

“I always knew there were other child care providers a road away or the street down from me,” said Shunk, who cares for 12 children at $325 a week, each, and has about 40 more children on a waitlist. “I looked for training, I sought out ways to differentiate myself.”

Over the years, she has earned a master’s degree in early childhood education. She’s earned accreditation from the National Association for Family Child Care, an organization in which she is now involved as a state representative. She revamped her program to offer an extensive outdoor classroom. And her center has reached the highest level of quality in Maine’s quality rating and improvement system, or QRIS, a voluntary program that is meant to encourage child care providers to meet high standards and, not incidentally, provide parents a way to find programs that are exceeding the state’s basic licensing requirements.

Sasha Shunk works with some of the children in her home-based child care program before the coronavirus pandemic. Families in her state have fewer options for providers than they did when she entered the child care profession nearly 20 years ago. Credit: Courtesy Sasha Shunk

But the family child care landscape has changed in Maine over the years. There are fewer than 800 care providers in the state now, Shunk said, and with the intense need for child care, those few don’t have any problem attracting clients. Shunk said the dwindling competition has made it harder for parents to find care, and has removed an incentive for providers to pursue quality.

Shunk says more providers must be brought into the industry and given the resources and incentives to improve. That takes time, but is a worthwhile policy goal, she said.

“When you’re entry-level, you are prioritizing the health and safety of the children, but there are different components that you can build upon,” Shunk said. “Just because a program is a level one doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send your child there,” she said, referring to the first step on her state’s child care ranking system. But hopefully, entry-level providers can develop plans to continue their growth, she said.

The need for increased child care access and quality have never been more important, and the child care industry has never been more fragile. The Biden administration’s signature domestic bill, Build Back Better, was the latest attempt by the federal government to increase both the number of child care providers and to ensure those providers offer safe and nurturing environments. But the bill was benched indefinitely in late December, when Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, raised concerns about the overall cost of the legislation.

Now, child care advocates hope the fractures exposed by the pandemic will focus public attention on creating some kind of government support for improving a child care system that is currently on the ropes.

“What we have is breaking us,” said Mary Beth Testa, a policy consultant with the National Association for Family Child Care. “Leaving things as they are is not the answer.”

Related: The racist and sexist roots of child care in America explain why the system is in shambles

Testa’s organization had been particularly enthusiastic about provisions in the bill that would have greatly expanded the number of children eligible for child care subsidies, and that would have required states to base those subsidies on the cost of providing high-quality care. Currently, most states link subsidies to the market rate of child care in a given community, but the market rate can be much lower than the actual cost of a high-quality program.

Sasha Shunk runs a home-based child care center from her home in Portland, Maine. Over the years she has increased the amount of time that children spend outdoors, and now has an extensive “outdoor classroom.” Credit: Courtesy Sasha Shunk

An increase in funding is necessary because quality improvement efforts have long been grossly underfunded, said Susan Hibbard, the executive director of the BUILD Initiative, a national organization that helps states create systems to measure child care quality. Without sufficient funds, some programs have not been able to survive. For example, in 2017 Mississippi discontinued its QRIS program, citing financial reasons. State QRIS can often end up funneling limited resources to child care programs that are already doing well, Hibbard said, rather than investing in programs that need support to improve.

“You do want to give the three-star centers enough money to be able to maintain their quality,” Hibbard said, referring to centers that meet state measures of high quality. “But you also need to have something for all the smaller programs. That’s more important, and that needs to be the first thought.”

Some states are still energized around the issue of how to appropriately measure and motivate high-quality child care, even without the backing of a bill like Build Back Better, said Terri Sabol, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. “We see states that even without federal funding seem to want to invest in this,” said Sabol, who studies the factors that lead to healthy child development. “Yes, it would be awesome if there were this federal system that supported it, but absent that there’s great appetite for figuring out how to measure quality.”

Related: After mass closures, too little support, post-pandemic child care options will be scarce

And yet, quality has proven incredibly challenging to measure in a sector that includes everything from a single provider caring for a few children in her home to for-profit entities with dozens of employees. It’s also difficult to nudge providers who are already operating on razor-thin margins to make extensive — and sometimes expensive — changes in their operations. One incentive used in some states is to give a larger child care subsidy to higher-rated centers. But not all providers take public dollars.

“It was very hard for centers to be responsive to any pressures to improve without any resources to put into it,” said Daphna Bassok, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, and a researcher in child care quality measurements.

“There’s a massive amount of instability in child care right now,” Bassok said. The focus from providers is “on a very baseline level of quality — how do I get enough teachers in this classroom every day?”

A child care classroom in Jackson, Mississippi. Mississippi ended its quality rating and improvement system in 2017, citing costs. Early childhood advocates say that more money is needed to give providers an incentive to make quality improvements. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

State and federal government have tried many ways to incentivize quality. What child care advocates liked about Build Back Better is that it included generous federal incentives to increase the number of providers, encourage providers to make quality improvements, and pay for center renovations and repairs.

The bill also would have required that child care workers be paid enough to lift them above the federal poverty line. Child care workers earn less than $14 an hour, on average.

But Build Back Better did not require states to start from scratch when it came to measuring child care quality. States were expected to build on the framework that most of them already have, the QRIS. Nearly every state has a quality system, such as “Great Start to Quality” in Michigan, “Capital Quality” in the District of Columbia, Texas’ eponymous “Texas Rising Star” system, and the “Quality for ME” program in Maine, in which Shunk participates.

Many QRIS frameworks measure quality by combining scores on several different measures, such as teacher-child interactions, staff training, teacher-student ratios and family involvement. The framework then boils all those measures down into a simple four- or five-point scale. A center that meets minimum standards would earn a 1. A 4 or 5 rating indicates a top provider.

Related: A little-known program could be a model for how to spend billions in federal money on childcare

But research has found that while there might be notable differences between a minimally qualified provider and one of the best, it was hard to see meaningful distinctions between centers in the middle — those that might receive a 2 or 3 on a 5-point scale. A 2017 study of Oregon’s QRIS — which has since been revamped — reported that even though providers were ranked on a 5-star scale, there was no difference in observed quality “between programs rated 1 vs 2, or between programs rated 3 vs 4 or 5, or between programs rated 5 vs those rated 3 or 4.”

A bigger problem arose as researchers started to look even more closely at child outcomes. The provider ratings based on these composite scores weren’t predicting how well a child was prepared for school.

Children work on an art project at Sasha Shunk’s daycare in Portland, Maine. Shunk is licensed to care for 12 children and has about 40 more on a waitlist. Credit: Courtesy Sasha Shunk

In 2013, Sabol was the lead author on one of the first research papers to raise concerns about rating systems that attempted to boil several measures down to one score. A single measure — teacher-child interactions — was more predictive of good child outcomes than the composite scores.

More studies followed, with similar results. A 2019 report, prepared at the request of the U.S. Department of Education, looked at nine states that had conducted their own research on how they were measuring child care quality. That report also found that children who attended higher-rated programs did not have better developmental outcomes than those who attended lower-rated ones.

Measuring quality is still essential, Sabol said. But, she added, “those findings really highlighted the need for a more slimmed-down approach that really focuses on the key elements of quality that matter for the development of young children” — how providers teach, talk with and play with the children in their care.

States are responding to the research, in some cases by revising their child care rating systems to focus even more closely on the interactions between adults and children. Louisiana, for example, invested in a mandatory rating system that requires observers to rate teacher-child interactions in every early childhood classroom. Bassok’s research shows that, over time, those interactions have improved.

Investing in teacher training, however, is difficult in a field where educators may stay just a year or so before moving on. To help address this problem, Bassok is working on a program in Virginia that gives early childhood teachers $1,500 to $2,000 to stay with their employer for a year. The stipend has helped cut teacher turnover.

Sabol said the next generation of ratings systems should try to include even more nuanced measures of the elements that are known to affect young children. For example, ratings focus on an overall score for a center, but individual classrooms at the center could differ considerably. Even within a given classroom, children’s experiences could vary.

“Our work is showing there is just as much variation in kids’ classroom experiences between classrooms as there is between centers,” Sabol said. “We really need to be able to characterize classrooms accurately and not assume kids are having the same experience.”

If a massive federal investment in early childhood education does not make it out of Congress, expanding high-quality child care still has to be a priority, Shunk said.

“Clearly, [Build Back Better] is not going to pass the way we had originally hoped it was going to pass, but I am hopeful,” she said. “I can understand the cost being a concern, but that’s still some short-term thinking. We really have to look long-term to make this a sustainable early childhood system so that parents can be working and children are in quality environments from a young age.”

This story about QRIS was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Christina A. Samuels

Christina Samuels oversees coverage of early childhood education, as well as K-12 education in the South. Samuels previously worked at Education Week, where she covered topics such as educational equity,...

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