Public Policy Forum Blog

Child Care Quality Improving in Milwaukee County, but Progress Uneven

In 2011, Wisconsin implemented YoungStar, a child care quality rating and improvement system. The goals of YoungStar included improving the quality of child care within the state, creating an easy way for parents to identify and choose quality child care, and incentivizing child care providers to improve their services. In a new report, The Quest for Quality, the Public Policy Forum takes a fresh look at the impact YoungStar has had on Milwaukee County child care providers, parents, and children.  

YoungStar rates providers that accept Wisconsin Shares child care subsidies on a scale of 1 Star (fails to meet basic health and safety standards) to 5 Stars (meets highest levels of quality standards). We find that the majority of children receiving Wisconsin Shares subsidies in Milwaukee County (54%) currently are enrolled at 3 Star providers. This is a substantial improvement since the Forum's last analysis in 2013, when 54% were enrolled at 2 Star providers. This improvement is critical because a 2 Star rating simply indicates that a provider meets basic health and safety standards, while a 3 Star rating means a provider has gone beyond those basic requirements and met proficient levels of quality care across four major categories of evaluation.

Some types of child care providers have made more progress than others in improving their YoungStar ratings, however. The good news is that half of all group child care centers are now rated 3 Stars, and another 25% are rated 4 or 5 Stars. On the other end of the spectrum, however, home-based family child care providers appear to be facing unique challenges within the YoungStar rating system; 62% of family providers have 2 Star ratings, and the total number of family providers has decreased by 22% over the last three years. This could present an access problem for families who prefer to have their children in home-based care.

Additionally, the report examines access to quality providers by ZIP code. We found that over half of the ZIP codes in Milwaukee County have fewer than two quality providers (rated 3 Star or above) per 1,000 children ages 13 and under. That includes seven ZIP codes with less than one quality provider per 1,000 children. In addition, while most ZIP codes have shown increased access to high-quality care (providers rated 4 or 5 Stars), two ZIP codes – 53202 and 53206 – have no high-quality providers.

So, is YoungStar meeting its stated goals? Overall, more children in Milwaukee County are enrolled in quality care, and the number of children enrolled in high-quality care has doubled since 2013. However, recent research has shown that the benefits associated with quality child care are achieved only with the highest quality care. To that end, Milwaukee County and the state as a whole both need to continue building on recent progress.

Betsy Mueller