Vt. child care rating system to change

Child care centers in Vermont can earn STARS ratings from one to five. The STARS program sets standards and goals in the state, it is 20 years old and is schedu
Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 5:33 AM EDT
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MILTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Child care centers in Vermont can earn STARS ratings from one to five. The 20-year-old STep Ahead Recognition System run by the Vermont Department for Children and Families sets standards and goals in the state, but it’s scheduled to change come July, pending approval by the Legislative Rules Committee.

Children enjoy a warm April day at ABC Academy in Milton. It’s ranked five stars per the state’s current criteria, one of 52% of participating programs with four or five stars.

“Maintaining five stars in early childhood education takes a lot of focus and money,” said Lisa Labelle, ABC’s owner.

Seventy-four percent of the programs have improved from one star, which centers are automatically granted when they are licensed. Criteria in the state to get high rankings include providing a parent handbook and documenting children’s strengths and needs at least twice a year, to name a few.

Labelle says that in addition to her 30-child program in St Albans, her 77-child program in Milton is expanding to 107. She’ll be looking to add the staff to educate the wait list of students. “We’ve maintained these five stars but it’s getting harder and harder. It’s harder to find quality staff, it’s harder to recruit and retain quality staff. And in order for us to be able to continue to provide five-star quality care, then we need public investment,” said Labelle.

The STARS criteria are expected to change. Janet McLaughlin with DCF said the goal is for STARS to become more equitable. “The original system really focused more on process indicators, right, some of those things that were a little easier to measure. They were indicators that the research base showed were associated with high quality, but they weren’t. The new system is really going to focus on the end result,” said McLaughlin.

Instead of looking for program-specific criteria -- like if they have opportunities for families to meet with program staff -- it’s focused on improvement, with child care center applicants showing previous goals they’ve achieved and setting new ones. An example of the change is the length of experience of educators won’t be a criteria checkbox.

“I actually prefer the new system. It’s about the quality interactions between the educator and the kids, instead of just the materials that you have,” said Labelle.

A sweeping child care bill in the House is a big priority and talking point this legislative session. It would raise wages for child care providers and increase subsidies for parents. Labelle is an advocate for the bill, something she says is crucial to maintain the high ranking. Right now, the STARS program is tied to the Child Care Financial Assistance program, meaning someone with a higher level of STARS is rewarded with a higher reimbursement rate. The bill also looks to separate those two, setting child care financial assistance rates based on age and program type as opposed to the STARS level.

“Our proposal is to move all programs up to read the current five-star rate is. So, it should be an increase of funding for actually about 75% of programs within the child care system,” said McLaughlin.

Not everyone is on board with the bill that currently sits in the House. Governor Phil Scott said in a recent press conference that upfront spending on programs like child care would shortchange other programs that help working families, including the child tax credit and affordable housing. He also said it can be done in a way that doesn’t increase costs to already overburdened taxpayers.

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