TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – With a childcare crisis gripping our region and the nation, some childcare professionals say state regulations are a roadblock for those looking to open childcare facilities.
Closing childcare centers have put parents in limbo, and remaining facilities across the region are stacked with waiting lists, some of which are more than 100 entries long.
A report released this summer by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education estimated that the childcare crisis costs the state $1.34 billion per year, and the Tri-Cities suffers a $43 million hit each year due to the shortage.
With a need for childcare centers in our region, why are facilities closing instead of opening?
“Red tape” meets research
Early childcare specialist Alexis Turner is a preschool teacher at Hospitots in Johnson City, and she said she believes heavy state regulation discourages people from opening more childcare centers.
She said when she researched the scales used to assess childcare facility quality in Tennessee’s Star Quality program, she found that the regulations are based on research that is 20 years old.
“The more I learned about how a kid’s brain worked and the methods that were best to teach them, the more I tried to increase the quality of care and education I was giving my kids, the more the state regulations were getting in my way,” Turner said.
Sky Arnold, a representative for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, said environment scores are distributed by The Teacher’s College Press, an independent company that he said many states use in quality evaluations.
He added that the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in North Carolina uses multiple sources to develop the scaling tools used in assessing childcare facilities.
“Occasionally, that company will issue revisions to those scales so they don’t change often, so childcare providers can have a firm understanding of expectations,” Arnold said.
Previous story: Infant care waitlists put parents in limbo, no solution in sight
Arnold said that the environment scales are just one part of the accreditation equation, but Turner said that she finds the grading scales are focused in the wrong areas.
“The issue, for me, is that scale is entirely based on the environment, so nothing in that scale is based on what I’ve taught my kids, if they’ve received the education, their learning outcomes (or) if they were happy,” she said. “None of that is taken into consideration.”
She points out regulations that dictate a classroom must have three sets of blocks instead of one set of 20, or that all books must appear new and be visible on both sides when displayed in the classroom.
“It’s hard for me to offer care I believe in to kids, when (they’re) telling me, ‘Well, I need exactly this many blocks,’ and all my books are supposed to look brand new even though they’re supposed to be loved,” Turner said.
“What am I teaching kids with these things (they’re) requiring me to have that aren’t really doing anything down the line?”
Tennessee’s Star Quality program is voluntary, according to the state website. Childcare centers can opt into the program and be graded one a one-to-three star score complete with a certificate of state accreditation.
Arnold called the program a tool that parents can use when selecting a childcare facility, adding that the program can also benefit the centers.
“The more stars they earn, the more money they’re able to receive for serving children whose care is subsidized through our childcare certificate program,” he said.
While the quality program is voluntary, Turner said the regulations create a lot of hoops for those who are chasing a high-quality score.
To others, having high-quality ratings comes with even bigger stakes.
Catering to the desert
At a preschool on the edge of Greeneville, Shirley Leftwich and two of her aids take care to put toys back in their spots while still keeping an eye on the 12 children in their care.
Leftwich has been in childcare for 40 years, and has spent the past six operating Eagle Heights Preschool in Greene County, a county the state designates a childcare desert.
The toys don’t need to be organized for the sake of tidiness, Leftwich says. She could be docked on a state evaluation if she doesn’t have enough blocks, if everything isn’t labeled or if less than 80% of her walls are covered in colorful posters and pictures.
The Noah’s Ark playset perched in the front yard will probably have to go, too. She said she got points docked on her last evaluation because the mulch wasn’t deep enough in certain spots around the playset after the children had played on it.
Childcare isn’t supposed to be easy, she said – she’d done it for 30 years in California. But she described keeping up with Tennessee regulations as “overwhelming.”
“It’s all about counting toys,” Leftwich said. “You can’t put certain toys next to each other . . . if you have your kitchen stuff over in your block area, you could get in trouble.”
Leftwich’s facility is classified by the state as a “group home.” Group homes are regulated by the state but are smaller than “childcare centers.”
Leftwich said her center depends on her accreditation. To enroll children who participate in the state’s Child Care Certificate Program, a facility is required to participate in the Three-Star Quality Program.
“They’ll tell you that you have an option, but our society right now, a lot of parents need help,” Leftwich said. “So if anybody has any type of funding, you can’t take that funded child if you don’t have the Stars program.”
Leftwich clarified that just participating in the program opens the door for centers to accept state-funded children, so a facility with zero stars can still accept state-funded children.
But that’s less money that the facility gets reimbursed from children in the state certification program. For Leftwich, that’s nearly all of her students.
“It’s all just so complicated,” she said. “Or it’s just made to be complicated.”
Changes from the state
Leftwich said help came this year through the state’s new mentoring program.
She got 20 hours of help from a mentor who helped make sure the facility was up to pass the Star Quality scoring system, and she said her facility went from zero to three stars in a matter of months after six years of missing the mark.
Arnold said the Department of Human Services is “continuously working to encourage new programs to open.”
He said the department provides mini-grants to help facilities meet standards or open secondary locations, and has recently increased the reimbursement rate agencies get from the state’s certificate program.
“Our hope is these actions we’ve taken will help individuals with the expenses to operate and open a licensed childcare business and expand one that’s already operating,” he said.
For childcare specialists like Turner and Leftwich, the answer might lay in a re-examination of the state’s scoring system. To them, there are still too few childcare facilities with long waiting lists and parents searching for help.
“In Tennessee what we really want is we want more care and we want that care to be high-quality,” Turner said. “I think there are a lot of centers that want to open, but they don’t want to mess with being accredited by the state.”