Public Policy Forum Blog

Opportunities to improve child care quality in Milwaukee County

A new Research Brief released by the Forum today digs into the details of another year of data on child care quality following adoption of YoungStar, Wisconsin’s child care quality rating and improvement system. Two years after implementation, more than 92% of Milwaukee County providers now have been rated, and most have received relatively low marks. Our analysis reveals, however, that there are promising opportunities to direct available YoungStar resources strategically in order to help providers improve.

Our review of YoungStar shows that only 5.1% of the 1,187 rated child care providers in Milwaukee County have received the highest possible ratings of four or five stars, while 70.8% have received two stars. Among children from families receiving Wisconsin Shares subsidies who attend child care programs in Milwaukee County, 9.4% attend a 4- or 5-star program and 54.4% attend a 2-star program.

Deeper analysis also shows that there are many providers who are very close to moving up to the next ratings level and who may be able to do so with only a small boost in technical assistance or other resources. In fact, there are large groups of providers who either are on the threshold of earning sufficient total points for the next rating tier, or who have already earned enough total points to qualify for a higher star rating, but who are being held back due to a specific categorical obstacle. A focus on those two groups –particularly those who already have the educational qualifications needed to advance to the next star level – could precipitate a substantial jump in the number of 4- and 5-star providers in Milwaukee County in the near future.

Other key findings from the YoungStar Research Brief include the following:

  • Current ratings for Milwaukee County providers – and their associated financial impacts – vary significantly by provider type. Currently, 13.6% of group child care centers have 4– or 5-star ratings, compared with 1.7% of family providers and 0.8% of school-age providers. Meanwhile, approximately 80% of family providers and 74% of school-age providers have 2-star ratings, compared with only 50% of group child care providers. The Wisconsin Shares program’s tiered reimbursement system rewards 4- and 5-star providers with bonuses added to their subsidy reimbursement payments, while 2-star providers are penalized with reimbursement payment reductions.
  • Among Wisconsin Shares participants, older children are less likely than younger children to receive care from a high-quality child care provider. Just 4.8% of children ages six and older attend 4- and 5-star programs, compared with 11.8% of children under the age of six. This is a reflection, in part, of the low number of school-age providers who have received 4- or 5-star ratings.
  • Among children with Wisconsin Shares subsidies, children in Milwaukee County are less likely than those in the rest of Wisconsin to attend a high-quality child care program. Only 9.4% of children in Milwaukee County attend a 4- or 5-star program, compared with 17.8% of children in the rest of the state.
  • For providers in Milwaukee County currently receiving 2- or 3-star ratings, staff education appears to be the biggest hurdle to advancing to a higher rating tier. Approximately 90% of the 2-star providers who have received a technical rating do not have the educational qualifications needed to advance to three stars. In order for 3-star providers to advance to four stars, they must go through YoungStar’s formal rating process, which involves an intensive on-site evaluation. In many cases, however, it is clear that 3-star providers do not have the educational credentials needed to earn four stars, so a formal rating is not pursued and the provider remains with three stars.
  • Currently, 4- and 5-star providers receive 14.8% of the Wisconsin Shares dollars in Milwaukee County while making up 5.1% of all providers and serving 9.4% of all subsidized children. This is the case both because of YoungStar’s bonus payments for high-performing providers and because group child care centers with higher average enrollments make up the bulk of the 4– and 5-star providers. On the flipside, 2-star providers in Milwaukee County receive 45.8% of the funding but account for 70.8% of the providers and 54.4% of the children served by Wisconsin Shares.  

While it is clear that the Wisconsin Shares program’s tiered reimbursement system is providing an incentive for 4- and 5-star providers to maintain their high quality, additional research is needed to better understand how YoungStar is supporting 2- and 3-star providers to make quality improvements. The Forum will delve into that topic in the coming year. Since supporting providers to make quality improvements is a fundamental component of YoungStar, we should expect to see many providers move up the rating scale in the coming years if the system is working effectively.

Joe Peterangelo