Thursday, February 16, 2017

Update on Licensing, Health, and Safety at DEL


To the Early Learning Community,

The Department of Early Learning, which I have the honor to direct, regulates thousands of small businesses that provide childcare to 180,000 children in Washington every year. You hear a lot about “regulations crushing small businesses” and “regulations being critical to ensure safety.” Finding a balance between adequate safety and supporting childcare providers is important to getting the best outcomes for kids. 
  • We do fingerprint-based background checks on anyone who has unsupervised access to children, about 50,000 of these a year. This ensures that sex predators and people with a history of abusing or neglecting their own children don’t get to work in the industry. 
  • We make sure childcare facilities have fire safety checks, have safe playgrounds, have enough square footage to provide enough room for kids to move around, don’t have dangerous cords hanging down from window blinds, don’t have cleaning products or weapons accessible to children, etc. 
  • We make sure there are enough adults in the classroom to ensure safety. There are national standards for this kind of thing and we work hard to follow them. 
  • We ensure that facilities follow practices like safe sleep, food prep safety, good diapering practice to avoid fecal coliform infections, etc. 
  • We ensure minimum provider education levels because outcomes are much better for kids when they have a provider with a stronger educational background. 
  • We follow federally-required annual inspection schedules and incident follow-up deadlines.

Our goal is to prevent injuries and fatalities. Despite our best efforts some will occur, but many fewer than if we didn’t have rules providers have to follow.

In addition, we have a voluntary system (“Early Achievers”) that measures the quality of childcare. For taxpayer-subsidized kids we require at least a level 3 on our 5 point scale because it’s better for kids and we think taxpayers have a right to insist that they only pay for high-quality care. We pay more for higher quality care and instruction because it costs more. It’s worth it because we get better outcomes. Read more about Early Achievers here.

Like any regulator, we get complaints from the businesses that we regulate. They complain that our regulations cost too much to comply with, that our enforcement is biased against them because they are X, Y, or Z, or that we are inconsistent in our enforcement. Providers that have more than one location served by different licensors often have evidence that this is so, with different problems treated differently by different licensors. 

I try to approach problems like this analytically, so I asked for a systematic review of discipline practices across the state in my first few months. It turns out the businesses are right – we have different practices in different places, and often between different licensors inside the same office.  This isn’t OK, but it is a challenge to fix.  We have to have the regulation, but we also have to enforce it the right way. To improve the consistency and appropriateness of our licensing effort we’re doing the following: 
  1. Clarify the rules. Our rules should be readable by providers who have a high school education, our minimum educational requirement. We are in the middle of a complete re-write of what was a complex, multi-part document that had been written in pieces over decades. We’re aiming to be consistent across different types of facility – family child care homes, centers, and our state-run preschool program called ECEAP.
  2. Set clear expectations about consequences for violations. Safe sleep violations put vulnerable infants at risk of crib death. Keeping your paperwork in order so you don’t waste the licensor’s time checking everyone’s CPR training status is important, but perhaps not as much as safe sleep. We’re “weighting” the rules so our licensors and the small businesses we regulate can see how seriously violations of different rules will be treated.
  3. Training our staff. We’re planning to engage in a continuous review process on the new rules. Licensors will gather in groups to work through responses to common (and uncommon) situations that often get different responses and ensure that we’re all treating things the same way. We’ll document these cases to use as training for new licensors, and make them available to providers to see actual examples.

This isn’t an overnight project. The rules revision alone has already taken most of a year and we expect another 6-10 months of feedback, analysis and work to finalize the changes. It’s hard enough to change rules that we want to get it right. This is called the “Alignment” project, and you can read about it here.

We’re in the middle of the “weighting” process now, and are using a somewhat complicated but evidence-based approach to this to ensure that lots of stakeholders have input into the weights. Read about the weighting process here. 

Part of ensuring consistency of application of these rules is having an appeals process that makes sense. Our current process is just to have the supervisor of the original licensor review the decision. This doesn’t result in a lot of corrected actions and also doesn’t help build consistent practice. We’re moving to a new system where appeals go to a rotating group of experienced licensors who get to look at appeals monthly, without identifying information. This eliminates any implicit bias we may have about a provider and gets a single interpretation across the whole agency of the issue that’s come up. Our new process should roll out this spring. 

In addition to the formal steps we’re taking, we are investing in upgrading our software infrastructure so that licensors can track their observations on regular monitoring visits. Our new system is based on and works in the cloud.  We expect it to be easier to manage as well as being a useful tool to see how peers react to concerns a particular licensor may have. 

Building a regulatory system that is too extreme can result in significant compliance costs for providers. There needs to be some rules (not having enough adults in the building is cheaper, but very, very dangerous) but having too many onerous rules can push providers out of the licensed world. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to tell the difference, but it matters. We shut down an unlicensed facility in 2016 when we discovered there were way too many infants for one provider to manage and a person living in the household who was a level one sex predator with a gun collection. You might not be able to see this from the outside, but you don’t want your kid there. 

Finding the right balance is tricky, and we depend on public input to make the determination. It’s like taxes. It always feels to a taxpayer that their taxes are too high, but the societal costs of having an inadequate education system that the taxes pay for are much more severe. The safety and outcome implications of getting the balance of childcare regulation wrong are pretty severe as well, and it’s worth being thoughtful about how we approach it. 

We’ll keep updating and engaging with you over the next year as the projects I mentioned above move forward.


Ross Hunter
Director, Washington State Department of Early Learning

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