By Heather O’Leary
The Register Guard
For many of the 5,000 children under age 5 in child care every week in Lane County, the care is their early learning setting. Yet, studies have shown that state child care policies are weak in most states. In fact, most states earn a failing grade on basic protections for children, such as health and safety.
Unfortunately, Oregon is one of those states, ranking 35th nationally in regulation for family child care and 27th in regulation for child care centers, according to a Child Care Aware of America Survey.
Changes are under way.
Locally, we have made major strides in the last two years to improve outcomes for children. Family Connections of Lane and Douglas counties, the local child care resource and referral agency headquartered at Lane Community College, has been selected to be a pilot site for a new tiered Quality Rating Improvement System.
The QRIS system is part of Gov. Kitzhaber’s early learning plan. The QRIS pilot, funded through the Oregon Child Care Division’s “Race to the Top” grant, will provide support and incentives to all licensed child care programs to participate in a new rating scale.
This system will operate like a hotel or restaurant star rating. Child care programs will complete comprehensive self-assessments and submit them to Western Oregon University/Teaching Research Institute. The programs will be designated with a star rating from 1 to 5.
The intent is to support parents in making informed decisions to find the highest quality child care for their family. We have already seen 50 programs take the first steps in this process. This project is targeted to roll out statewide in June 2014.
Oregon already requires some of the characteristics of high quality child care: background checks; pre-service training on health and safety; child development and professionalism.
In addition, Oregon’s minimum standards include annual inspections and ongoing training requirements and rules governing size of class and child-teacher ratios. On the national level, President Obama has proposed a comprehensive early learning strategy to promote safe, quality settings to foster healthy child development for young children from birth through preschool age.
Safe and high-quality child care should be the cornerstone to any early learning vision for Oregon and America. Parents need child care in order to work and a strong economy depends on working parents.
However, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the federal law that allocates funds to states for child care and sets the framework for state child care laws, has not been reauthorized in 17 years.
As Congress considers any early learning strategy this year, improving the quality of child care needs to come first. Safe, quality child care is an economic development strategy for every community. Parents know it. It’s time for policymakers to address it.
Heather O’Leary is the director of Family Connections of Lane and Douglas Counties, headquartered at Lane Community College. Family Connections provides free parent referrals, training for child care providers and presentations to community agencies.