MARIETTA, Ga. — Parents often spend weeks visiting dozens of day care centers and preschools before finding one they like, but a new state rating system could eliminate some leg work.
Georgia is rolling out its first quality rating system for child care centers, in-home day cares and preschools,part of an effort to spur improvements in the programs.
Though the system is voluntary, nearly 600 programs have signed up since it launched in January. That’s far ahead of where officials expected to be four months in, but it’s just a fraction of the 6,300 early learning programs in the state.
“We can open a Zagat and look at ratings for restaurants. We can go into hair and nail salons and see what the health inspector said,” said Mindy Binderman, the head of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. “But there’s no way for parents to evaluate whether a child care setting is quality.”
Georgia has licensed day cares and preschools for years, but the rating system will help parents identify programs that go above and beyond the bare minimum required by the state.
Work on the system began a decade ago, but its rollout was halted for years because of state budget cuts.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who has made early education one of his priorities, revived the push for the rating system after he took office in January 2011. The state couldn’t get the program up and running in time to win $70 million in federal funding from the “Race to the Top” grant competition for early learning programs.
At least 30 states already have such rating systems.
A 2010 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed more than three-quarters of in-home child care programs in Georgia and at least one-third of all private preschool programs were of low quality. Since then, the state has begun inspecting in-home day cares before granting licenses and requiring all employees to have 20 hours of training before the program opens.
An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published last month found the state paid millions in subsidies to day cares that didn’t meet health and safety standards for child care. That represents about 10 percent of the child care programs in the state.
The newspaper also found that Georgia has been less aggressive than other states in revoking licenses for violations.
Bobby Cagle, the commissioner of the state Department of Early Care and Learning, said the rating system will help improve centers that fall below standards.
The public won’t see the scores until next year, but programs are already touting that they’ve enrolled in the system and are working on everything from serving healthy food to designing age-appropriate curriculum.
Programs that sign up for the rating system will get grants of up to $4,000 to help them improve their scores with new equipment, professional development for teachers and innovative activities for children.
Some of that money can go toward small bonuses for teachers and administrators at centers that rate highly.
For parents like Seth Miller, who has three children in day care in Smyrna outside Atlanta, the rating system would mean not spending countless hours searching for the best place for his children.
“Especially when you’re a first-time parent or a parent new to day care, there are so many unknowns,” said Miller, whose children attend the day care at his wife’s company. “Every place you go, they love children and they all care deeply about children and they all would love to have your child there. That’s the siren song.”