COLUMBIA, S.C. - Plans to set up a statewide voluntary rating system for day care centers are on hold after the House budget-writing committee blocked the program.
The state Department of Social Services had planned to start the program, Palmetto STARS, this spring. But lawmakers last week adopted a temporary law - attached to the state budget bill - that would prevent them from beginning the system for at least a year.
Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about whether the system would drive up costs. They're also under pressure from some day care operators who say the program would be unfair.
"It's supposed to be voluntary, but it really wouldn't be, in practice," said Rep. Ralph Davenport, R-Boiling Springs. "The (cost) effect would be felt by lower middle-class and middle-class families."
Lawmakers in the full House or Senate still could delete the provision in the budget bill that would block the plan, but that's unlikely to happen.
Under the STARS system, child care centers that choose to participate would be rated on a scale of one through five. Any licensed child care center with no DSS violations would automatically earn one star. A five-star facility would have "the highest national standards of excellence" in staffing and what children are taught, according to a summary of the proposed system.
The ratings are not connected to proposed DSS regulations that would require lower teacher-child ratios in day cares. Those regulations, which would be phased in over the next four years, would increase the staff-to-child ratio for the more than 1,260 centers in South Carolina, which care for more than 125,000 children. If South Carolina passes the proposed regulations this year, one adult will be able to supervise five infants under a year old and six ages 1 to 2.
Nearly 40 states already have voluntary child care rating systems, including Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.
"It would give parents who are interested in a facility an idea of where they stood," said Rep. Bill Cotty, R-Columbia, who voted against the STARS ban. "It's a no-brainer."
But day care centers that don't want to go through the ratings process would get a black eye, Davenport said.
Child advocates say any program that encourages child care centers to excel is worthwhile.
"A child's brain is almost fully developed by age 4," said Susan DeVenny, director of South Carolina First Steps, the state agency that provides early childhood education. "The quality of child care is really paramount because children are either being stimulated, or they're not."
DeVenny notes that restaurants have health ratings posted on their doors, but parents don't know about the quality of care their children are getting.
Debbie Williams, professional development director for The Sunshine House child care centers, said she supports the STARS concept. But she says the criteria would make it nearly impossible for small centers to achieve the highest marks without dramatically raising fees.
"The way it's set up, it would be difficult to earn above a two-star," said Williams, who once worked for DSS.
One component of the system would encourage child care staff to earn associate degrees. Williams said that would be a problem for many qualified older workers who don't wish to return to school.
Sandra Hackley, a STARS supporter and director of early childhood education at Midlands Technical College, said she hopes a compromise can be reached.
"There's a lot we can do without affecting cost," she said. "Yes, we need to do this without putting it on the backs on providers and families."