Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) rated and accredited centers and family child care homes are a small subset of the entire ECE program and provider population in Los Angeles County. This low participation in, and availability of, quality assessment (and improvement in the case of QRIS) efforts in the county was potentially due to a combination of limited opportunity, funding, and other factors. These levels of participation make it difficult to gauge the overall levels of quality countywide.
Among those providers that participate in QRIS, many providers have achieved higher levels of quality. In fact, over half of QRIS rated programs in the county achieved a high quality rating. This distribution was likely, at least in part, a function of which programs were participating in QRIS, with many of the programs who were currently rated also adhering to other performance and quality standards due to their operating mandates and funding sources.
Infants and toddlers are largely unable to access current QRIS rated and highly rated programs and providers in Los Angeles County. QRIS rated providers served predominantly preschool-aged children, according to the QRIS rated sites that provided data on this topic. QRIS rated family child care homes fared slightly better for infants and toddlers, with about one third of the family child care homes who reported age data serving infants and toddlers. Access for infants and toddlers in general is a challenge, which apparently carries over to the subset of providers who are QRIS rated. This is largely because the reimbursement rate for infants and toddlers is widely considered to be inadequate, and not equivalent to the real cost to a provider of caring for an infant or toddler. Parental choice also plays into these dynamics, with parents potentially choosing more home-based care for infants and toddlers than for their preschool-aged children. Currently, the demand for QRIS rated seats is unknown for infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children.
QRIS rated providers in Los Angeles County are funded by a variety of sources, including many different streams of public funding. Much of the funding reported by programs that were rated and highly rated by QRIS came from public sources. Many public funding sources have operating mandates and program requirements that exceeded Title 22 licensing standards. It is generally easier for providers who are already meeting higher quality standards to enter, sustain participation in, and have success in the QRIS efforts. Private providers likely had more challenges entering and achieving higher standards in QRIS because many private providers operate at Title 22 standards, without the addition of more stringent operating mandates and program requirements that publicly funded programs often experience.
Best Start Communities are home to QRIS rated and highly rated sites, as well as accredited centers and family child care homes. Proportionally, fewer centers within Best Start Communities were QRIS rated compared to all rated centers in Los Angeles County. In contrast, family child care homes within Best Start Communities had a higher proportion of QRIS rated homes compared to all rated homes in the county. A very small number of centers and family child care homes within Best Start Communities were accredited by either NAEYC or NAFCC. Best Start Communities fared well with regards to the prevalence of highly rated centers and family child care homes especially when looking at the number of QRIS rated programs in these communities. Additionally, there was a higher percentage of highly rated family child care homes than highly rated centers out of the QRIS rated programs in Best Start Communities.
Current QRIS funding levels, incentives, and supports are insufficient to ensure meaningful long term quality improvement. Additional funding, incentives, and supports are needed to address the barriers to participation in and advancement through QRIS systems in order to work towards more universal and more sustained, continuous quality improvement. The incentives and supports currently available to providers were largely focused on initial registration and beginning participation in the quality rating process. The funding for QRIS generally pays for incentives to participate and underwrites some of the costs associated with quality improvement; a common example being the purchase of equipment or materials to address deficiencies in the physical environment. The existing funding levels and supports are not enough to provide for all the quality improvements a provider would need to make in order to implement and continually operate a program according to the highest quality standards.
Expansion of QRIS efforts, and effective investments in quality improvement and sustainability, are challenged when QRIS participation is voluntary. With the exception of the LAUP QRIS, which requires participation to receive LAUP funding, the QRIS efforts in Los Angeles County (and largely statewide) are voluntary. Voluntary participation has significant implications on how resources are expended, as considerable resources have to be devoted to outreach for potential participants and incentives to begin and continue participating. Resources for ECE are limited and needing to focus in part on outreach and incentives to participate may direct funds away from potential additional quality improvement and long term sustainability efforts.
Licensing is both a benefit and a challenge for QRIS. Licensing as the base for quality frameworks allows a large number of providers, but not all, to be able to enter the process. However, some providers are challenged by a big jump from basic Title 22 licensing requirements to the requirements of the next rung of the QRIS ladder. Because some consider licensing as a low price of admission to QRIS efforts, there has been discussion in the field about either raising the floor of the requirements for QRIS entrance, or raising licensing requirements themselves. This is a charged discussion because if this were to happen, fewer providers would qualify to participate and those that would be disqualified from participating in many cases would be those that could benefit significantly from an intentional focus on quality improvement. Raising licensing standards for all may have a positive effect on quality in the long term, but in the short term could lower the accessibility of QRIS because fewer providers and programs would meet the new, higher standards licensing standards initially.
Quality improvement efforts in Los Angeles County, while much more established than many counties, are largely still in their infancy, with much still left to address in order to expand, sustain and entrench both the rating and improvement aspects of QRIS. With the RTT-ELC funding ending and the current LAUP master plan expiring in the same period, 2015 will be a defining year for QRIS efforts in Los Angeles County. A huge step forward for coordinated quality improvement efforts and uniform approaches is the commitment of all three QRIS efforts to use the same quality rating matrix and standards under the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge umbrella by December 2015. In addition to access to countywide quality assessment data that will only come from an expansion of QRIS or similar efforts, the improvement component of QRIS still needs time, thought, investment, and greater coordination in order to thrive. Determining the most effective standards, most appropriate measurement tools, and most effective processes for participation and improving quality are still very much under development.
Click here for limitations regarding our research.