- Associated Press - Thursday, July 17, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska has launched a new quality rating system for child care facilities and early childhood education programs, state officials said Thursday.

The “Step Up to Quality” system is designed to help parents and guardians evaluate programs that care for young children on factors including curriculum, learning environment, staff interaction with children and family engagement efforts.

A state law passed last year requires participation from 10 of Nebraska’s largest child care providers - all in Omaha and Lincoln - and smaller providers that collect at least $250,000 from the state. The program is voluntary for any other providers.

Over the next three years, the system will expand to include about 60 programs that collectively serve between 13,000 and 14,000 children.

Nebraska has 130,000 children who are of pre-kindergarten age, said Eleanor Shirley, state director of the “Step Up to Quality” program. Many of those children are in programs such as Head Start and public school pre-kindergarten, or in private child care.

“If the public is aware of what high-quality child care is, that may ultimately create a demand for change and improvement,” Shirley said. “Nebraska children will benefit by being better prepared to succeed in school.”

Supporters of the law have said quality standards for the largest providers could help children bridge the gap early, without burdening smaller child-care services or providers in rural Nebraska.

Nebraska spends about $95 million a year on child-care subsidies for working, low-income families. The law was approved last year amid concerns that the state wasn’t tracking the quality of care that those pre-kindergarten children receive.

Parents and the public will have access to the ratings starting in 2017. In the meantime, programs that reach certain high-quality ratings will receive certificates that they can display for parents. The phase-in is designed to encourage participation in the system and to give child care programs sufficient time to make improvements.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, told lawmakers last year that children who rely on child-care subsidies are often the same ones who lag behind their peers developmentally - which costs the state more through mediation and special education classes.

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Online:

Rating system website: www.education.ne.gov/StepUpToQuality


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