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Private Child-Care and the Early Learning Challenge

Last week, I spoke with Elanna Yalow, chief academic officer of global early-learning programs for Knowledge Universe, the company that owns KinderCare, the nation's largest private child-care provider. We talked about how states and private child-care providers are likely to work together to meet the requirements of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge.

Q. About two dozen states now have Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, (QRIS) and developing one is a key element of the Early Learning Challenge. What elements of a QRIS are most important to private day care providers?

A. There are three reasons to do a QRIS [from a provider's viewpoint]: First, it's a powerful framework to do things better. Five levels of quality really does help you continue working on the process. Second is tiered reimbursement—receiving more state subsidy per eligible child as you achieve higher levels on the star system. If you serve a significant number of eligible children, that's a real incentive. Third is market demand. If private-pay parents really understand the system, it's likely to drive your enrollment. We have some centers in private-pay markets where [a high QRIS rating] is an important differentiator.

Q. How has Knowledge Universe worked with states on developing QRIS systems? Which existing systems stand out, and why?

A. Where we can, we like to get involved early and work with states that are building out their QRIS, either on how to craft them or to offer our centers as pilot sites. [A Knowledge Universe officer served on California's Early Learning Advisory Council, which had led the work of piloting a state QRIS system until budget cuts eliminated the council last spring. As of late August the state was still deciding how to manage its work. Two KinderCare centers in Washington state are among the early adopters of its pilot QRIS.] North Carolina and Pennsylvania have done a phenomenal job of supporting parents' understanding what quality looks like. They are really the standouts in terms of a good public information campaign. North Carolina [and others] provide technical assistance and support for training. It's a great resource to improve the quality of your teachers.

Q. What are the most important things states can do to strengthen the early-education workforce, another priority in the competition?

A. Technical assistance—providing support and training for early-childhood educators and guidance for center directors. There is just not enough professional development that goes on in most centers. It's not from lack of caring; it's from lack of resources, time, and expertise. Way back, even regulatory agencies were somewhat consultative. Now they come every two years or every five years, not regularly. There's less time and fewer dollars.

Q. What about the efforts some states are making to offer scholarships to help early-childhood educators access to higher education and advanced training?

A. You can help individuals grow, and that's transportable, but it's different from being on site and providing assistance to everyone in the center community.

Q. What are the critical supports states will need to budget for as they develop quality systems?

A. If they don't come with technical assistance support and tiered reimbursement, it will be hard [for private providers] to achieve them and run a viable business. Because it's such a low-margin business, it's really hard for people who want to do better things to find the resources, especially in this economy where private-pay parents are challenged.
Quality is expensive. Working families can't afford, it and subsidized families aren't getting the reimbursement needed to pay for it.

Q. Some observers have expressed concern that the Early Learning Challenge's impact may be limited since the pool of funds is considerably smaller than in earlier rounds of Race to the Top and only a handful of states can win. What's your view?

A. Honestly, there's not much money to go around for the amount of work that needs to be done. [But] it's a very important and exciting statement about the role of early-childhood education in preparing children for their future. To the extent that strong models will be developed, it has life and legs beyond the limited number of locations. And this has the opportunity to bring in the private sector and create stronger public/private partnerships, with much broader impact on all children served through early learning and care.


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