Alabama rolls out new STARS ratings, daycares fear negative consequences

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Dodie Stewart has been teaching at Kids Care in Toney for 17 years.

She thinks of herself as a grandmother figure; someone who can love and guide every child she meets.

"I just love watchin' em grow," Stewart said, laughing, "They take to me and I take to them."

Stewart is the kind of teacher Kids Care Director Pamela Lanford prides herself on hiring. She's worried, though, about the impact of a new program called Alabama's Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) or "Alabama Quality STARS" for short.

The Alabama Department of Human Resources tells WHNT News 19 the STARS program was designed to raise standards statewide.

Many daycare directors, though, fear it will bring higher costs for parents, excess paperwork and fewer opportunities for experienced teachers like Stewart.

WHNT News 19 first began hearing concerns from providers months ago. Since then, we've been taking action for parents; investigating what the new program will really mean for the child care community.

The first step, was to find out how STARS works.

The program is just now rolling out statewide. It's voluntary, only for centers licensed through Alabama's DHR and administered in partnership with the University of Alabama.

Through the program, participating centers can earn one through five stars for meeting requirements in areas including: community involvement, equipment, curriculum and staff development. You can click here to read about the requirements and star levels in detail.

Jeanetta Green, Assistant Director for DHR's Child Care Services Division, said through STARS, Alabama parents will finally have an easy way to identify centers providing excellent care. Until now, nothing comparable existed.

"They will have something that's easy for them to assess," Green emphasized.

Lanford has concerns. As the President of the Madison County Daycare Directors Association, she tells WHNT News 19 most directors in the organization are  worried about staffing.

Specifically, they fear the STARS requirements won't be flexible enough to accommodate experienced caregivers like Stewart. To get 4 or 5 stars, according to Lanford, a center needs teachers with Early Child Care and Education degrees.

That's not really an option for someone like Stewart, who feels she's "too old to go back to school" but doesn't want to be pushed out of her job should her center pursue a high star rating.

Another worry?

Paying degreed employees also costs a lot more. According to Lanford, other states implementing programs like STARS "have had funding streams" from lottery dollars or earmarked funds.

Without something similar in Alabama, multiple daycare directors tell WHNT News 19 they'll be forced to pass the extra cost of training and equipment installation on to parents.

It won't be just a small bump, either.

"It could be $25 to $50 [additionally] each week," Lanford estimated.

WHNT News 19 raised the cost concerns with Green, who noted there will be a STARS scholarship program as well as free training. "That will help offset any additional costs there may be because of higher standards," she said.

When asked how much would be set aside to help fund those initiatives, Green said Alabama "expends a minimum of 7% of the federal CCDF allocation on initiatives to improve the quality of the child care setting" but did not provide specific dollar amounts.

Many daycare providers fear it won't be enough.

In fact, Lanford fears higher fees at licensed providers pursuing star rankings, could force parents to send their kids to unlicensed facilities.

"When you're pushing children out of licensed programs because of cost, then nobody is benefiting from that level of quality," Lanfor lamented.

There's another concern among Madison County daycare providers: the stars themselves.

Green is clear any stars awarded are for added excellence. "Everyone who receives a star is doing more than state regulations require," she stressed.

Centers though, worry parents will think the system works like online reviews for hotels or restaurants, where one star is bad and five stars are good.

Even though the program is, for now, totally voluntary, there's also fear of a stigma for those who don't sign on. Will parents look at those who don't partake and ask, "What are they hiding?"

"Many of us go above and beyond. [In this current system] there's not a place for that recognition," Lanford said."

Lanford stressed members of the Madison County Daycare Directors Association are very supportive of raising standards statewide; as well as providing accountability to parents through a rating system. They hope, however, that revisions will be made to STARS going forward, to take more director concerns into account.

Smaller centers speaking with WHNT News 19, in particular, are concerned about the paperwork and coordination required to apply and participate. They fear they'll be at a disadvantage compared to larger centers, including those with corporate affiliation, since bigger size typically means bigger dollars for administrative staff.

So how does the enrollment process work?

Alabama's DHR said centers will be able to apply only during enrollment periods going forward; any incoming program must attend an orientation session first. For the first Alabama Quality STARS application window, there were 168 programs that attended orientation sessions. Of the programs that attended those sessions, 41 submitted applications. The application deadline was April 29, 2016.

Only two of the programs which submitted applications are located in Madison County.

Lanford has, for now, opted not to sign up for STARS. She's taking a wait and see approach to see how potential challenges are worked through.

She's hoping her parents will understand her decision and urges all families to do thorough research on a potential daycare before ruling it out; STARS or no STARS.

"They need to go in and see what fits best for their child," Lanford said.

Stewart puts it even more bluntly. "They need the extra mom they feel comfortable with," she told WHNT News 19, smiling as she laid out sticky buns on a long table.

"They need love," she said.