BUILDing Strong Foundations

It’s Time: The Steady Growth of QRIS and the ECE System

7/16/2018 12:00:00 AM
Posted by: Build Initiative

By Ruth Trombka, Writer and Editor, The BUILD Initiative

Anne Mitchell has spent over three decades in the field of early childhood care and education (ECE) during which time she has amassed a long list of achievements. She has conducted nationwide studies of state and local prekindergarten policy, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), and early care and education finance. She has published widely,[1] writing more than one “must read” for anyone developing, revising, or responsible for a QRIS. Anne has worked with more than half the states in the country as well as foundations, federal agencies, and national organizations. As this recipient of multiple leadership awards prepares to “glide off into retirement,” we thought it a good time to chat with her in an effort to fully grasp her role in the birth and life of QRIS as well as any next steps she suggests for the continued growth of QRIS and the early childhood system as a whole. Following are just some of the facts, suggestions, and pearls of wisdom that rolled off her tongue.

In the Beginning

In 1990, a few state child care administrators started doing something similar. Using the same basic structure, they were rating the quality of programs and providing supports to programs for quality improvement. They made the ratings public with the goal of influencing consumers’ early care and education choices. Anne and others noticed this common structure across states and got involved in helping others to develop and revise the structure. It was such a powerful conceptual approach to making early care and education better that it spread organically among state leaders. In 2005, Anne wrote Stair Steps to Quality, which looked at the first ten states that adopted this approach. After that, the concept took off; today, every state but one has a QRIS or is in the process of creating one.

The Power of QRISs: It’s Not What you Think

The early inventors of QRIS theorized that having information would encourage parents to make better choices. As it turned out though, knowing something about perceived quality isn’t the starting point for most parents. In general, they rely on recommendations of family, friends, and other trusted sources, as well as their own gut feelings. This is just the nature of consumer choices, in this case about our own children. And, of course, many parents don’t really have a choice about child care. Cost, location, and the hours of availability have so much to do with the decision.

Where QRIS has been incredibly powerful – maybe more so than its early inventors imagined – is in incentivizing improvements in program quality. To the extent that standards are clear and achievable, and the supports (financial and otherwise) are robust enough, QRIS makes a difference and the quality of child care has improved. This is objectively true. Providers don’t have a lot of incentive to improve quality because parents don’t have a lot of money to pay for it. A QRIS that has robust financial incentives can make the quality of child care change for the better because both the technical and financial resources are there to make it happen.

Impact of the QRIS Movement on Early Childhood Systems Building

QRIS leaders have made the issue of quality much more visible and have contributed to an ongoing conversation about what really constitutes quality. Furthermore, QRIS has made the potential for consistency in defining quality among states greater. It also has ratcheted up the expectations for what quality ECE really means, well beyond the basic health and safety regulations.That’s important. One of the impetus forces for QRIS was the degree of difficulty associated with changing regulations. States got around this by creating something that was connected but not required - but that slowly improved regulations. North Carolina is the most obvious example of this process: over time, as its QRIS became ubiquitous, state leaders were able to raise up the floor of regulations. Raising the floor didn’t generate much resistance when few programs weres operating at the lowest quality level.

The Biggest Obstacle to Creating and Implementing QRISs

It’s not hard to bring people together and come up with a set of standards that are generally agreeable. What is hard is to gain adequate public investment so that the majority – hopefully all – programs can prosper in the QRIS and produce high quality early learning and care settings, families can pay affordable prices, and ECE professionals can receive equitable compensation. A key struggle states have is matching their aspirations for high standards with their ability to invest.

The good news is that now most people understand that very few families on their own have the resources to buy quality ECE for their children. This is the same impetus that got us public kindergarten and high school and colleges in every state over the past centuries. We have to remind ourselves that we are building the ECE system in the USA. It’s a slow process because we do it state by state. As Anne said, “It’s simply not American to decide that we’re all going to do the same thing all at once. Gradual adoption over decades seems to be our approach.”

The Right Message

Crafting the right message, as part of a larger communications strategy, is key. We need to take the growing understanding of the importance of the early years to school success and lifelong well-being and help people recognize that investing in early education is just as important as investing in K-12 and higher education.

People generally understand now that the first years of life are a sensitive period – that brains are being built. What we need are good, clear messages that resonate across the political spectrum to get the public sector to put up more money. And we need advocates to be clear about all the ways revenue can be generated; we need to leave no revenue source unexamined - and we’re going to need them all – federal, state, and local. We must be able to explain clearly that families are making way more than half of the investment in this entire industry and they can’t afford any more. We must get closer to 75 percent public investment (like higher education) and 25 percent family/student investment. We need to make a dramatic shift.

Anne noted that she has spent her life trying to get people to talk about early childhood finance in a coherent way but that we’ve made progress. We get stuck, for example, on debating methods of compensation. We need to stop arguing endlessly about these details, settle on the pros/cons and focus laser-like on the fact we need a lot more money, figure out the best ways to get it, and do it at every level possible. And we need to take advantage of the fact that with a QRIS, there’s a mechanism for ensuring that you are investing in quality. You’re not investing in just anything that’s out there; you’re investing in quality programs because we’ve agreed that these are the standards that pertain.

She suggested looking to the Bipartisan Policy Center, which is doing useful work on messaging, what language communicates, what people think is a public responsibility versus not, and how to frame messages so that they’re equally attractive to people across the political spectrum.

Start Spreading the (Local) News

Child care issues are felt at the local level and many cities and counties have stepped up to deal with them. (Anne is very excited about these cities and counties but added that we need to pay attention to supporting those that won’t be able to take it on directly themselves, such as rural counties.) We need to spread the good news about what cities and counties have done and promote a menu of state and national finance options.

The public does not seem to be especially moved by international comparisons (e.g., the fact that Mexico has free preschool is a non-starter as motivation for the US) but it has more interest in what is happening locally. Luckily, we have great local examples! Dayton, Ohio, for one, is a high-poverty city with lots of problems that has managed to do a tuition-free Preschool-for-All plan with a modest local income tax increase making public investments only in quality-rated programs. Florida has had children’s services councils taxing districts since the 1940s. Only three counties in the state don’t have them now. That’s an interesting model for how to generate local dollars for quality early care and education.

The Long View

The way Anne sees it, we’re building the ECE system - the complement to the K-12 and higher education systems. It took a long time to build those – and a combination of federal, state, and local effort and funds.

But we’re at the point now in this multi-decade process that we must jointly declare, It’s time; we’re ready; we can do this. We’ve got the quality standards and the understanding about different ways to finance. It’s not really more complicated than that. It’s about creating the will to do it, which goes back to understanding how to best explain this to people across the political spectrum so that we all understand that it’s important and necessary.

Anne’s Legacy

When asked what she would like her legacy to be, Anne said that she already has it: the fact that QRIS exists, that she played a “small role” in helping to spread it, that there’s a better understanding of the range of possible ways for early childhood financing to proceed, and that there are existing models in practically every state. She has enjoyed her role as “ambassador,” spreading the word that we can figure this out. She’s very happy to have worked with wonderful people who are now taking up the cause and proud she’s been able to mentor some younger people who are doing really good work. Anne, whose modesty seems to run as deep as her list of achievements, said she’s satisfied with the work she has done over the decades and that she feels we’ve made progress - “emphasis on the ‘we.’”


Anne’s publications include "Early Childhood Programs and the Public Schools: between Promise and Practice" (1989); "A Proposal for Licensing Individuals who practice Early Care and Education" (1995); the 1997 and 2001 editions of "Financing Child Care in the United States"; "Education for all Young Children: the role of states and the Federal Government in promoting Prekindergarten and Kindergarten (2001); "The State with Two Prekindergarten Programs: a look at Prekindergarten Education in New York State 1928-2003" (2004); "The Price of School Readiness: a tool for estimating the cost of Universal Preschool in the States"(2004) and "Success Stories: State Investment in Early Care and Education in Illinois, North Carolina and Rhode Island" and "Stair Steps to Quality: A Guide for State and Communities Developing Quality Rating Systems for Early Care and Education" (2005); "Smarter Reform: Moving Beyond Single-Program Solutions to an Early Care and Education System" (2006) and "Using Tax Credits to Promote High Quality Early Care and Education Services" (2007).

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