How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

(Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat)

By Ann SchimkeChalkbeat

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 600 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.