Child care ratings improving, though progress is uneven

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum finds more children are getting highly rated child care than five years ago, but Milwaukee County isn’t seeing as much improvement as the rest of the state.

The report is called “Guiding Stars: Child Care Quality Ratings Are Improving, But Progress Is Uneven.” It looked at ratings for child care providers that get subsidies from the government through the Wisconsin Shares program. Report authors note the program helps about 20,000 families afford child care.

Subsidy awards are determined by the state’s YoungStar rating system, which gives ratings from one to five stars on safety, staff education, environment, curriculum and more. It’s been in place since 2010.

Providers that receive one star get no subsidies, while two-star providers get reduced subsidies. Three-star providers get regular subsidies, and four- and five-star providers get extra funds — 10 percent more for four stars, and 25 percent more for five stars.

As of July, the report shows about 75 percent of children in the Wisconsin Shares program were with providers rated three stars or above. That’s up from 56.1 percent in 2013, according to the report.

Nearly half were receiving care from three-star providers, while 27.2 percent were in four- or five-star programs.

Wisconsin’s biggest counties, Milwaukee and Dane, had the most top-rated providers. But smaller counties had higher proportions of high-quality providers.

In Milwaukee County — which has the most children in child care of any county — just 13 percent of providers got four or five stars. That’s compared to Vilas, with 67 percent getting four or five stars; Bayfield, 60 percent; and Dane, 42 percent.

Excepting Dane County, counties with the highest percentage of top providers have fewer available providers.

Five counties have no four- or five-star providers: Crawford, Florence, Kewaunee, Menominee and Pepin. Milwaukee has the highest proportion of one-, two- and three-star providers, and the lowest percentage of four- and five-stars.

Only about 23 percent of kids in Milwaukee County are in high-quality programs, compared to a third for the rest of the state.

Report authors say differences might be linked to the setting for the care providers. Home-based family care providers usually get lower ratings, and Milwaukee has a higher proportion of those providers than the rest of the state. That’s compared to Dane County, which has more group child care centers with more staff, resources and often better ratings.

Looking at the state overall, report authors note the general improvement can also be linked to a trend of more group care centers and fewer home care centers.

Fewer group centers are rated two stars compared to other care centers, and a much larger percentage are rated five stars — 26.4 percent, compared to just around 5 percent for family providers, school-age providers and day camps.

Even within Milwaukee County, access to highly-rated providers varies by ZIP code. Three areas have at least 10 top quality providers, while most others have fewer and one has none.

Although Milwaukee County’s child care providers are lagging behind the rest of the state, they’re still improving. Between February 2013 and July of this year, the number of four- or five-star rated providers went up from 60 to 152.

Although progress has been uneven, particularly in Milwaukee County, report authors say the YoungStars program is making “substantial progress” toward its goal of getting more Wisconsin children enrolled in early childhood education providing high-quality care.

Still, report authors say policymakers should consider other ways to address child care disparities in the state.

See the full report here:

–By Alex Moe