Missouri could be about to put two separate state agencies in place to oversee various aspects of day care centers in the state. That might actually be an improvement, but only if accountability is easy to track.
Right now the Department of Health and Senior Services monitors and inspects licensed and licensed-exempt child cares. But some 3,900 day cares in homes, churches and schools that receive funds through Missouri’s subsidy program are not inspected by state child care regulators.
Under legislation awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature, that would change. The Department of Social Services will get charge of those unregulated day cares that receive federal subsidies. DSS already oversees the federal subsidies; federal regulations require that it be the agency in charge of overseeing unregulated day cares.
Make no mistake about it, getting that oversight in place is a big deal, no matter which agency is put in charge. Senate Bill 869, sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, would close a huge loophole.
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The day care subsidy program, which uses state and federal funds, paid out $149 million last year and served about 39,000 kids. About $38 million of that money — a quarter of the federal and state subsidies — went to day-care centers that had almost no state oversight or inspections.
The Post-Dispatch’s Nancy Cambria reported in a 2011 series that between 2007 and July 2011, 50 children died at unlicensed day-care facilities in Missouri. Child care advocates have been pushing ever since for a law to guarantee oversight of these facilities and to make sure minimum standards of safety and quality are being met.
The new monitoring would check for such standards and for the first time would require state visits to unlicensed facilities that accept the subsidy revenue. The rules also require the development of “quality indicators” so parents can evaluate the safety and caliber of child cares, Ms. Cambria reported late last month.
These are big steps to take in getting some assurance of quality day cares in Missouri. Advocates are particularly pleased about the quality measurement system.
It would be nice to think the Legislature passed this bill because they realized that day care in Missouri sometimes is dangerous. That might have been part of it, but Missouri also stood to lose more than $100 million in federal funding if it did not comply with federal oversight standards expected to be in place by fall 2015.
Child advocates are leery that DSS could have a role alongside the more experienced Department of Health and Senior Services. The advocates want input in determining standards for the quality indicators; they want more than simple rules like meeting basic fire codes. The bill’s language requires “input from statewide stakeholders such as parents, child care providers or administrators” to develop the indicator.
Erin Brower, an attorney and vice president with the Alliance for Childhood Education, one of several groups that lobbied for the new standards, says her group would like to see DSS and DHSS work together and build on the systems already in place with the health and senior services agency.
Ms. Brower is also concerned that DSS might contract out the work to other agencies, which she contends could weaken oversight. She wants assurances that DSS will aggressively report illegal day cares to DHSS, which does licensing and inspections.
And then there’s the money issue, always a big one in a state plagued with slow revenue growth and a Legislature still determined to cut taxes for rich people and corporate interests. Ms. Brower says the $13 million for oversight provided in the legislation might not be enough money to cover the high number of unlicensed home day cares in operation.
Ms. Brower says there also is a need for some of the money to be used to help day cares make the changes necessary to meet the quality indicator standards. “The goal is not to shut down day cares but to improve them,” she said. “The question we ask is how do we help facilities get there.”
These are valid concerns, but this legislation promises huge improvements in the way day cares have operated in Missouri. It gives parents some measures to look for when evaluating where they want to leave their kids, and it gives child care advocates leverage in working to improve day cares.
Mr. Nixon should sign this bill and insist that DSS and DHSS collaborate to make sure that kids in Missouri’s day cares get quality care.