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Columbus Child Care Providers Sweating To Meet Deadline For Higher Standards

Kedada Bethel from LCD Academy in Gahanna.
Nick Evans
Kedada Bethel from LCD Academy in Gahanna.

Toddlers at LCD Academy in Gahanna are learning about sea creatures. Watercolor sets are spread out on the table, and the kids paint on coffee filters with construction paper sharks, starfish and whales in the center.

“What color are we going to paint the shark?” Kedada Bethel asks the kids.

“Blue?” a girl suggests.

“Blue! Very good!” Bethel says. “The water’s blue, right?”

Big changes are underway for Ohio’s childcare system. By 2020, every provider accepting public dollars needs to meet licensing requirements under a state program called Step Up To Quality. The initiative, which was approved in 2012, lays out standards for curriculum, staffing and student assessment, and providers receive a star rating from one to five.

When she isn’t helping children paint, Bethel is LCDAcademy’s director of operations, in charge of balancing the books and keeping the lights on. The academy is relatively new, so it hasn’t gotten a star rating yet, but Bethel explains the new state requirements are never far from her mind.

“Fifty percent of your teachers have to have degrees, so we’re already hiring teachers with degrees,” Bethel says. “So currently our staff, 50 percent of our staff, or a little over 50 percent of our staff, already have degrees, so that will help us to be better prepared for the Step Up.”

In Franklin County, only about a quarter of providers have gotten star-rated so far, and that’s making local officials nervous. Joy Bivens, director of Franklin County Job and Family Services, explains what it would look like if that deadline was tomorrow.

“We would have 22,200 children that would not be able to be cared for in Franklin County,” Bivens told county commissioners at a recent briefing. “And I’m going to pause on that number. This would affect 10,000-12,000 employees. So this is not just a childcare issue—this is a workforce issue.”

Concern on the commission is palpable, even if, like Commissioner John O’Grady, they all agree with improving the quality of childcare options in the state.

“As a parent, as grandparents, this is something that’s a fantastic effort on behalf of the children of Franklin County,” O’Grady says.

The commissioners’ chief complaint is familiar: state lawmakers approved the plan but didn’t set aside money to help child care centers comply. The county has already put forward about $1 million to raise awareness and develop a training program for providers.  

Even though the deadline is two years off, it carries new education requirements for directors and teachers. Higher ratings require higher levels of education or training. Bethel says for some providers, that could be a serious problem.

“They’ve given you a lot of time to get there, but it doesn’t mean it makes it any easier to get there, because of that balancing act of with payroll, with paying for education for your teachers, with being able to pay the teachers,” Bethel says.

But the change isn’t all bad for them. The upfront investment in time and money to get a higher star rating may be significant, but providers will receive greater reimbursements with each additional star they earn. Centers can see up to a 35 percent increase in their public funding rates.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.