A growing number of states are adopting Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) as a strategy for strengthening the quality of child care. QRIS are designed to assess the quality of child care providers, give providers encouragement and incentives to improve, and help parents weigh their child care options. QRIS can be effective in offering providers a pathway for improvement and offering parents guidance as they try to choose a provider for their children. Yet QRIS will not achieve their intended goals unless they offer the resources and support that providers need to improve. And a new report from the National Women’s Law Center, Downward Slide: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2012, suggests that most states are falling short in that area.

The report, which examines several key state policies affecting assistance to help low-income families pay for child care, finds that over three-fifths (32) of the states pay higher reimbursement rates to higher-quality providers, or tiered rates. Yet in nearly four-fifths (25) of the states with tiered rates, even the highest rate is below the federally recommended level (the 75th percentile of current market rates, which is the rate designed to allow parents access to 75 percent of the providers in their communities). For example, Kentucky’s highest rate for center care for a four-year-old in the Central Region, $523 per month, is $83 per month (14 percent) below the recommended level. Illinois’s highest rate for center care for a four-year-old in the Metropolitan Region, $850 per month, is $124 per month (13 percent) below the recommended level.  (Note that some states have QRIS that do not provide tiered rates and some states have tiered rates but not a QRIS, so there is some—but not complete—overlap between the two categories.) 

When reimbursement rates are low, child care providers lack the resources needed to move up the quality rating ladder and offer an environment that helps children learn. The providers are not able to pay higher salaries to attract and retain well-qualified teachers. They do not have funds to purchase new toys and books. They cannot afford upgrades to their facilities. Without resources to cover the additional costs involved in improving quality, some child care providers—particularly providers in low-income neighborhoods who are often already squeezed financially—might decide to not even participate in QRIS. And those providers that have attained a higher rating level might be reluctant to enroll children whose families are receiving assistance because the reimbursement rate, even at the highest level, will leave them short of the resources required to sustain that quality level. Providers able to fill their slots with children from higher-income families paying the private fee in full would have no financial incentive to bring in families receiving assistance.

QRIS offer a promising strategy for improving the quality of care, but they cannot be implemented with a “Field of Dreams” approach: build it and they will come. Just having a QRIS does not mean that providers will automatically participate and increase their quality ratings or that parents will automatically use the system to guide their child care decisions. It is not enough to simply put the outlines of a system in place—merely laying out the rating levels and the criteria for achieving those levels. It requires reimbursing higher-rated providers at rates that are high enough to cover the costs of providing higher-quality care as well as other supports, including training and professional development for child care staff, mentors and coaches to guide providers as they try to improve, and sustained efforts to inform parents about QRIS and how they work.

Tiered reimbursement rates tied to child care assistance are particularly important because they are targeted toward vulnerable children who stand to benefit the most from higher-quality care. States should be doing more to ensure that rates for higher-quality care are not only higher than basic rates, but high enough to give these children and their families real access to the type of care that helps children learn and succeed.