One provision in the Ohio Senate’s new $75 million budget passed last week that has garnered plenty of attention has to do with Step Up to Quality, the state’s system for promoting quality in early childhood programs in Ohio.
The Senate budget removes the Step Up to Quality child care standards mandate, allowing child care providers to continue to get more money for meeting higher quality standards but not stopping payments for programs that don’t meet standards.
The Columbus Dispatch reports that the Step Up to Quality mandate removal is a step to reduce costs for the state, which Senate President Matt Huffman’s staff estimates will cost the state an additional $640 million by 2024.
The strange thing is that Step Up to Quality is currently saving the state money — but not in the way you would think. The same Columbus Dispatch article quotes Allen County Job and Family Services Director Joe Patton. He says the number of child care providers taking public funds has dropped from 60 to 17 in the past decade, something he attributes to the mandate to participate in Step Up to Quality.
This means that the requirements in Step Up to Quality could be leading providers to stop taking public funds so they don’t have to deal with these requirements.
The evidence that we have suggests quality in early childhood education matters. We’ve seen positive examples of the impact of early childhood like the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. We’ve also seen the negative impact of expanding child care without quality controls in Quebec, leading to higher aggression and illness and lower motor and social skills among children and worse parenting relationships and health among parents.
That being said, the evidence for the effectiveness of programs like Step Up to Quality are mixed.
A 2019 evaluation of New Mexico’s “Step Up to Quality” equivalent conducted by the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee found no evidence child care assistance led to improved educational outcomes. It did find that family income and child well-being improved among providers that participated in the program, but the specific ranking didn’t have any bearing on these outcomes.
What this means is that, while it helped families to be a “one-star” program, they couldn’t find any difference between “one-star” and “five-star” programs. These programs, at least in this case, were likely measuring and requiring the wrong things.
So what can we do better? One option is to focus more on outcomes than outputs. The New Mexico study above recommends creating evaluation plans for child care based on “measures of child health and social-emotional development, family economic improvement, and parental employment.”
Another option is to put the state in charge of assessment of quality the same way it is in charge of assessing health conditions. Having early childhood assessors who go on-site to assess conditions would reduce reporting costs borne by providers and could tie assessment to widely-used measures like the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale.
While we have good reason to believe early childhood education can grow the economy, reduce poverty, and improve lives, we still have a lot to learn about how to best foster it from a public policy standpoint. This is a system that will likely endure some substantial tweaking in the coming decade.