Virginia is changing expectations for child care providers to put focus on early education

By: - June 18, 2021 12:02 am

(Getty Images)

Come July 1, Virginia will join a growing number of states to fold child care oversight into its Department of Education.

The seemingly small shift signifies a major change in how the state is thinking about early childhood development. For years, child care and K-12 schools have been treated as separate services, overseen by different agencies with different expectations. Most child care programs have long been licensed by the Virginia Department of Social Services, which is more focused on regulatory compliance than the quality and content of classroom learning.

“We have felt like we’ve been managed as liabilities when we want to be treated as the assets we are,” said Kim Hulcher, executive director of the Virginia Child Care Association. Centers are subject to — and often cited for running afoul of — hundreds of standards, from the type of mulch under playground equipment to the protective covers over electric outlets. But statewide, only 25 percent of programs that accept public funding participate in a voluntary quality measurement system, which is aimed at improving curriculum and teaching.

“If I’m going to be honest, it hasn’t been a positive experience for most child care providers,” Hulcher said. “It was always, ‘What can we find that’s wrong?’ It was not ‘What can we find that’s right?’”

At the same time, investment in early childhood education has become more stratified, said Daphna Bassok, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. In recent years, there’s been a boost in funding for some preschool programs focused explicitly on learning and development, with the goal of preparing children for kindergarten. But Virginia still devotes limited dollars — beyond what’s required — to match the federal subsidies supporting other types of providers.

“What it’s led to is a system that’s incredibly fragmented and inefficient, but also where some kids have access to much better-resourced programs,” Bassok said. According to statewide assessments, 45 percent of kindergartners in Virginia enter school without “key literacy, math and social-emotional skills.” Among low-income families, it’s 55 percent.

As providers have struggled throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning child care oversight to VDOE is seen as a crucial first step in stabilizing the industry. Jenna Conway, chief school readiness officer for the Virginia Department of Education, said the change in oversight will lead to more uniform standards for child care programs across the state. But within the industry, there’s hope that centering child care under the umbrella of public education will also lead to better and sustained funding.

“Yes, we have miles to go,” said Karin Bowles, director of strategy for the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation. “But I think what this consolidation does is set up a strong, accountable system to build confidence in making those investments.”

Students play outside The Children’s Center in Suffolk in June. Many child care providers converted outdoor spaces into classrooms over the summer in order to maintain distance between students.

What will change

One of the largest and most immediate changes will be new educational standards for providers. Starting this fall, VDOE is launching regular classroom observations at every child care center that accepts public funding. According to Conway, that covers 4,000 facilities — roughly 7,000 to 8,000 classrooms across the state.

Inspections aren’t new for providers. But unlike visits from VDSS, which focused almost solely on safety regulations, the new assessments by VDOE will also include  a uniform scoring system for teacher-student interactions. They’ll measure a program’s curriculum against the department’s recently adopted standards for early learners. The safety inspections will continue, with the help of 115 social services licensing staff moving over to the Department of Education. 

Facilities will receive practice scores for the first two years of the new system, according to Conway. But eventually, those ratings will be shared publicly — and help inform VDOE where to focus improvements.

“Over time, we’ll have more of these shared expectations for what kind of instruction children are receiving, whether you’re in a faith-based program or a big child care center,” she said. “And we’ll have that apples-to-apples comparison for thousands of classrooms across the state.”

Increased federal focus on early education has helped the transition. Historically, VDOE has struggled to oversee and improve K-12 school divisions, largely due to a lack of adequate funding from the Virginia General Assembly. But the state’s efforts to improve its child care system have been assisted by an $8 million federal grant and multiple rounds of COVID-19 relief funds. 

That federal funding also allowed the department to offer $1,500 bonuses to some teachers, helping to reduce turnover rates in an industry that typically pays less than $12 an hour. It was especially effective among teachers who received the payment in multiple installments, according to research from UVA. 

Since the start of the pandemic, that bonus has been boosted to $2,000 through a mix of state and federal money, Conway said. And for the next year, it will be offered to every teacher who participates in the new assessment program — part of an effort to incentivize the coming changes.

“We’re working hard right now to make sure we can sustain that,” she added. “You can train an educator on how to provide a warm and caring classroom, you can train her on an incredible curriculum, but if she leaves, all of that investment walks out the door.”

Teachers in masks care for children in the infant room at a daycare run by The Children’s Center, a nonprofit child care program in the Hampton Roads region. (The Children’s Center)

What won’t change

The ongoing struggle to find and retain teachers is one of many challenges facing a long-beleaguered industry. It’s well-known that state subsidies don’t fully cover the true cost of providing quality child care, Bassok said. But even before the pandemic, Virginia had some of the highest prices in the country — limiting how much providers can raise tuition for parents.

“The challenge of accessing affordable child care isn’t limited to low-income families,” she said. But the shift to VDOE is unlikely to change things in the near future. While the agency will take over licensing, regulations and oversight of the state’s subsidy program (though families will still apply for assistance through VDSS), it won’t immediately change how those subsidies are structured. Right now, they’re based on a child’s daily attendance, which can leave providers vulnerable if a student leaves the program or has to miss part of the year.

That delivery model is something state officials are considering closely, Conway said. Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, that will distribute fixed funds to some providers as part of a two-year pilot project. The amount of money will be based on the number of children served in the program and — according to the language of the law — the actual costs of providing quality care and paying teachers a fair wage.

The legislation also tasks VDOE with studying ways to improve funding in the long-term. In many ways, the pandemic brought much-needed attention to the industry as many programs were forced to shutter, further limiting child care options for working parents. Federal relief packages dedicated millions to stabilizing the industry, and Virginia temporarily expanded eligibility for its subsidy program, hoping to reach more families.

But there’s broad consensus that more funding will be needed long after the pandemic is over. Ali Faruk, director of public policy for the nonprofit Families Forward Virginia, said that’s especially true for programs that largely serve low-income families and don’t have the same assets as other providers.

“Every conference call I’m on, people ask what the state is doing about the fact that some programs are just not as well-resourced,” he said. That makes it challenging for many child care centers to offer the kind of competitive wages and educational supports that VDOE would like to see across the state.

“That’s the billion-dollar question,” Conway said. With the July 1 transition, the department will be responsible for allocating $488 million in direct aid to providers through the American Rescue Plan and another $305 million aimed at systemic improvements. The hope is to use that money to sustain its plans for quality improvement and bolster the professional development resources available to the industry. But it doesn’t change the fact that there’s still limited funding for more programs — particularly those serving very young children.

“Right now, infant care costs more than in-state tuition at many of our colleges and universities,” Conway said. “And yet there are so few programs to pay for it. So the question of resources becomes the main challenge we need to solve.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.