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QRIS: A Powerful Tool for System Reform

Guest post by Louise Stoney

As someone who has worked on early care and education policy and finance in many states, I have come to believe that Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) are an incredibly powerful tool for system reform. Why? Because a QRIS is more than just a way to involve parents and funders who seek to differentiate early care and education (ECE) programs by quality, or a way to encourage programs to invest time and resources into improving quality; it can also be a way to structure and shape ECE markets. QRIS is a unique accountability and finance mechanism with the capacity to work in both market-based and government-funded ECE. And it is one of the few quality improvement mechanisms --perhaps the only one--that can not only survive, but actually garner support, in very conservative, cash-strapped, states. QRIS also offers a unique opportunity to begin linking finance to program costs and, in this way, to pave the way for a truly cross-sector structure that bridges funding streams focused on both education and care. I will briefly explore each of these ideas in this introductory blog, and then follow-up with more depth later in the week.

Unlike other educational institutions in the United States, early care and education is largely market-based Despite increases in public and private funding over the past 20 years, most ECE revenue (about 57% of the total) still comes from the pockets of parents. Government funding is only about 39% of total revenues--and much of that government money is a portable subsidy in the form of a voucher or a tax credit, essentially operating (from a finance and policy perspective) like parent tuition. Within this context, we must create accountability measures that effectively embrace and include the financial contribution and high level of provider choice our families make. Bottom line: we will never address the quality ECE needs of most American children, including most poor children, if we do not.

Many ECE leaders believe that accountability should be rooted in minimum licensing standards, but truth be told there is hardly a state that has been able to raise minimum licensing standards since I started working on ECE policy 30 years ago. It is a political non-starter. And even states that have succeeded in establishing strong licensing standards typically end up with a large amount of unregulated services (either a vast network of underground, illegal care or a significant number of legally exempt center- and home-based ECE, or a combination of the two) because they haven't crafted standards that acknowledge market challenges.

QRIS can create a structure that is flexible enough to include a wide range of options with varying degrees of quality as well as a pathway to continuous quality improvement. Standards are structured as a continuum, for example from lower star 1 to higher star 5, that includes minimal care and then steps up, in increments, to the high-quality, more comprehensive services that support long-term positive outcomes. The improvement part of the equation -- the "I" in QRIS--is crucial, and makes it possible to craft a range of supports to help ECE providers move up the quality ladder. Some providers will improve quickly, some will move more slowly or perhaps only marginally and some won't move up at all. A QRIS makes the difference clear to funders, consumers and the community at large and allows the purchasers--whether they are parents or public programs - to act on that information.

QRIS also creates a pathway for aligning funding. We can create all sorts of financing scenarios by linking dollars from various sources to the appropriate level of a QRIS - with higher levels of funding (from sources like state PreK, Head Start, Early Intervention, Preschool Special Ed, child welfare, CCDF, tiered tax credits, etc.) for varying star levels. Additionally, QRIS standards can be used to create a master budget at each star level, to indicate what it is likely to cost to offer services at each quality level and among programs of various sizes, ages of children, length of day, and so forth. Various funding sources can then be included on the revenue side. In short, QRIS makes it possible - for the first time ever - to create a realistic budget, finance framework and accountability structure that is based on cost sharing from multiple sources.

Is QRIS perfect? Hardly. The QRIS approach was crafted by leaders focused on raising the quality of market-based child care centers and family child care homes. These leaders started with a consideration of the low bar that had been set for these programs, which resulted in a low ceiling for some QRIS approaches. And in some states the scope of, and vision for, QRIS is still too narrow and the top-tier standards still too low. However, change is coming. State leaders increasingly view QRIS as a powerful tool for system reform and are beginning to use it as a framework for bringing all sectors of the ECE system together to co-create a new, cross-sector structure for quality, accountability and finance. I believe in that bigger vision and in what the next generation of QRIS can accomplish.

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