In Oklahoma, a variety of initiatives has been implemented to improve the level of child care quality. A tiered system of quality and reimbursement known as “Reaching for the Stars” provides incentives for programs that meet the “star” criteria. Answers to some of the most-asked questions regarding the Stars program are provided below.
- Why did Oklahoma create the Reaching for the Stars program?
- When was the program implemented?
- What are the criteria, and how were they developed?
- How were the rates set?
- What support systems were created to support the Stars program?
- How are providers made aware of the program?
- How have parents been made aware of the program?
- How is Stars compliance determined and monitored?
- How do you determine “licensing compliance?"
- What is the level of participation in higher star levels?
- How has the program been evaluated, and what are the results?
1. Why did Oklahoma create the Reaching for the Stars program?
In 1996, a state task force met to explore the implications of welfare reform in our state. A child care committee was part of the task force, and one of the recommendations made by that committee was to establish a tiered or multi-level system.
At that time, state child care reimbursement rates were well below market rates, and accessing slots for low-income families receiving child care subsidy was difficult. As a result of the low rate, too few child care providers were willing to accept children whose care was subsidized by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS).
The committee believed that linking higher reimbursement rates to quality indicators would encourage facilities currently meeting only minimum licensing requirements to improve the quality of care provided. It would also increase the number of children receiving child care subsidy to be cared for in quality facilities.
One year later, it became clear declining welfare rolls would lead to the availability of federal welfare funds that could be used to implement a tiered system. During this time, early brain research became available showing that critical brain development occurs between birth to 3 years of age.
The Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study also indicated a majority of child care facilities provided poor to mediocre care, with more than half of the care for infants and toddlers being inadequate. These studies caused many decision-makers to be believe the quality of child care should be our highest priority.
From its inception, the Stars programs had three goals:
- To improve the competency level of child care providers, increasing the overall quality of their programs;
- To raise the OKDHS reimbursement rate, resulting in more slots for children whose families are receiving child care assistance; and
- To provide a system whereby parents could evaluate the quality of child care programs.
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2. When was the program implemented?
In February 1998, the program was launched with one- and two-star levels. The three-star level followed in July 1999 providing a higher reimbursement rate for programs that met the two-star criteria and were also nationally accredited. In July 2000, the one star plus level was launched giving providers two years and an incremental rate increase to reach two-star.
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3. What are the criteria, and how were they developed?
Two-star was the first level created in the tiered-reimbursement program. Two star quality criteria emphasizes those factors that research has shown to have the greatest impact on the quality of care -- teacher qualifications, training and wages.
The greatest focus was placed on staff qualifications and training because staff are the key to quality. The issue of staff compensation was included in center criteria as the low wages paid to child care providers has been the most significant barrier to improving staff quality.
Research shows when staff earns higher wages, the developmental outcome of the children in their care looks more positive. A center or home can become two star either by meeting the criteria or by being accredited by an approved national accrediting body.
One star plus was implemented as a result of a slowdown in two-star applications. Interviews were conducted among one star providers to gain insight into the lack of participation. Many of those interviewed said it was too difficult to meet all the two-star requirements without any new funding.
So the one-star plus level was launched in July 2000. One-star plus gives providers two years to reach two-star. At the end of 24 months, the facility must be approved as a two-star or return to one-star status.
The Stars program consists of four star levels:
- One Star:
- A program operating on a permit, license or provisional license is designated as a one star. One star programs that meet licensing requirements receive the current reimbursement rate for children whose care is subsidized by OKDHS.
- One Star Plus:
- A one-star plus center or home must meet one-star criteria and not have numerous, repeated or serious non-compliance with applicable licensing requirements;
- A center or home can operate on one star plus status for a total of 24 months. At the end of two years, the center or home must be approved as a two star or return to one star status;
- For initial approval, the center director must have documentation of 40 hours of training (20 of those hours must be Tier II or Tier III training in administration and management) within the last 12 months. A home provider must have documentation of 20 hours of training in the last 12 months;
- A weekly lesson plan appropriate for the developmental needs of each group of children in care must be provided by centers as well as a floor plan and photos showing interest centers. Homes are required to provide a daily schedule. Both the daily schedule and lesson plan must show that children are read to at least 15 minutes daily;
- Teaching staff, employed for a year or more, must have 20 hours of training per employment year; and
- Centers must use seven strategies for parent involvement and homes must use five strategies.
- In addition to meeting all one star plus criteria, centers must have one master teacher for every 30 children during the first year of two-star status and one for every 20 children, thereafter. Centers licensed as school-age programs or programs where the majority of children are school age must have a master teacher for every 40 children of licensed capacity. Master teachers must have an early childhood credential or a college degree with hours in child development or early childhood education or its equivalent. Family child care providers must also meet master teacher qualifications;
- A center must have a salary scale with increments based on level of education, credentials, training, and years of early childhood experience. The director must evaluate staff, in writing, at least annually, and compensation is based upon consideration of education, experience and performance. This criteria was included to encourage programs to reward staff as they improved their educational level;
- Centers and homes must attend approved training on program evaluation and complete a self-assessment tool;
- An independent evaluator using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) or other appropriate scale to determine the program’s strengths and opportunities for program improvement assesses the program. No specific score has to be reached but the facility has to survey parents and staff and establish program goals for the next year. All methods of program evaluation described in this paragraph are scheduled or completed within the first six months of two star certification.
- Three Star:
- A three-star program shall meet all two-star center or home criteria and be accredited through an approved national accrediting body.
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4. How were the rates set?
A 1996 child care market rate survey found major rate differences between counties and designated them as high, medium or standard rate areas. The rates adopted were based on the rate area; the age of the child and whether it was a child care center or family child care home.
We knew there needed to be an across-the-board increased rate to help cover the costs of meeting quality criteria as well as providing an incentive for providers to seek a higher star status. We also knew that, if we were to have enough child care slots for low-income families, the Department’s rate would have to come closer to the market rate, or the rate charged to private-paying families.
The largest rate increase was needed for infant and toddler care in child care centers in urban areas. We continue to rely on new market rate surveys to update market rate information by Star level and advocate for subsidy rates that keep pace with market rates.
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5. What support systems were created to support the Stars program?
- Reward is a salary supplement for child care employees who have worked in one facility for at least six months and earned a credential or college degree;
- Two year colleges make child development coursework more available with counseling and support provided by Early Childhood Scholar Coordinators;
- ECERS and other related scales are used by trained evaluators to provide a free evaluation of the two and three star programs;
- Two and three star centers receive twice as many conference vouchers as one star programs;
- One star plus, two, and three star facilities receive extra bonus points when applying for a child care accreditation grant;and
- The Accreditation Support Project provides financial support and mentoring through the Center for Early Childhood Professional Development (CECPD) to assist programs working toward accreditation.
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6. How are providers made aware of the program?
Satellite broadcasts were initially used to increase understanding of the criteria, the process and the benefits of the program. Staff of Stars programs have been recognized at state early childhood conferences and receive gold star pins. Resource books containing information on qualifying for star status are available. Licensing staff has been trained to encourage provider’s participation and to provide technical assistance. In April 2002, five Stars Outreach Specialists were added. One of their main responsibilities is to promote the Stars program. Their contact information is provided on our web site as well as included in star information packets sent to the provider.
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7. How have parents been made aware of the program?
A public awareness campaign was launched which included television and radio public service announcements, posters and brochures. Billboards displaying the star message are highly visible in heavy traffic areas; articles and advertising have been placed in newspapers. Child care programs are given certificates, decals and pins for teachers.
On average, more than 8,000 people visit the Child Care Locator each month, which displays programs’ Star status child care locator. Our resource and referral programs have also reported that a significant number of parents have called their offices to request programs with higher star status.
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8. How is Stars compliance determined and monitored?
Stars compliance is initially determined by the Stars Outreach Specialist (SOS) who reviews the following to determine if a facility or provider meets a certain star level: the completed application and attachments, the licensing history, any confirmed complaints in the previous 12 months and any information relayed by the licensing specialist, such as pending complaints. Stars compliance is monitored on an ongoing basis by the licensing specialist who verifies that documentation is still current and accurate and that the facility is in compliance with criteria.
A Stars Periodic Certification Review form is completed by the licensing specialist during licensing monitoring visits at least three times a year. If violations of certification are documented, the facility submits a plan for correcting the violations within an agreed-upon time frame, not to exceed 90 days from the date the violation occurred. Licensing staff provides written notification to the operator documenting the violations and a statement that the certification level will be reduced if violations are not corrected within the agreed-upon time frame.
The notification also states future violations of this or other certification criteria may result in the reduction of certification level. When a center or home fails to maintain the criteria for their certification level, licensing staff advises the provider of their right to request an extension of time to comply. This request is submitted to the Director of Child Care Services or designee.
The applicant’s request must demonstrate the violation of the criteria was not foreseeable and beyond the applicant’s control. One or more discretionary extensions of time to comply of one to six months may be granted. Reduction in certification level occurs when a one-star plus facility fails to meet the additional criteria at 24 months; violations are not corrected within the agreed-upon time frame; the facility has developed a history of numerous, repeated, or serious non-compliance with licensing requirements; the Department has issued an Emergency Order; a notice of proposed denial or revocation of license has been issued; or an injunction is obtained.
Appropriate supervisory approvals are obtained before any action is taken. If a reduction is warranted and supervisory approval has been obtained, the Stars Outreach Specialist sends a certified letter advising the provider of their right to appeal the decision by requesting an administrative review. A request must be submitted in writing to the Director of Child Care Services within 15 calendar days of receipt of the Department’s reduction notification letter. A facility that has their certification level reduced for any of the above named reasons will continue to receive the higher rate of pay for four months after reduction. This grace period was set up to allow the facility time to make adjustments in their budget to accommodate the lower rate of reimbursement.
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9. How do you determine “licensing compliance?"
Licensing compliance, for the purpose of the Reaching for the Stars program, is determined by a review of all licensing visits and confirmed complaints that have occurred in the previous 12 months. A licensing visit or visits with Numerous, Repeated, or Serious (NRS) non-compliance may impact a facility’s “licensing compliance” and, therefore, their ability to obtain or keep their star rating.
“NRS” is defined as numerous -- five or more areas of non-compliance for homes, six or more for small centers, seven or more for large centers; repeated -- three or more violations of the same requirement in a 12 month period; and serious -- non-compliance with Licensing Requirements which exposes children to conditions which present an imminent risk of harm.
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10. What is the level of participation in higher star levels?
In April 2004, 2,759 of 6,498 licensed facilities had reached a one-star plus or higher level. A breakdown of this is as follows: one-star plus = 1,120 (356 centers, 764 homes); two-star = 1,508 (732 centers, 776 homes); and three-star = 96 (131 centers, 35 homes). We implemented a policy in January 2003 that new subsidy authorizations will not be approved in centers that are one star status unless an exception due to access issues is needed. In April 2004 only four percent of children receiving center-based subsidized child care were attending one-star centers. Eighteen months ago this figure was 40 percent.
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11. How has the program been evaluated, and what are the results?
A validation study of the “Reaching for the Stars” program was conducted in 1999, 2001 and 2002 by the Early Childhood Collaborative of Oklahoma, a University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University partnership. The most current study findings indicate the quality of child care has significantly improved since the beginning of the “Reaching for the Stars” program.
More children receiving subsidized care are enrolled in high quality programs, and quality of child care has improved statewide.
Problem areas identified by directors included their difficulty in finding and retaining qualified staff. Availability of approved staff training in rural areas has been especially difficult, and directors asked that more training opportunities be made available for staff.
The possibility is great for the “Reaching for the Stars” program to make a positive impact on the future of child care. As noted in the study report, “The relatively high environmental quality ratings reported here suggest the myriad quality improvement efforts are beginning to bear fruit.” The research studies have provided additional insight into the stars program and we will continue to use the results of the studies to make program changes.
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