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Ga. To License Private School-Based Child-Care Providers

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Under pressure from some private child-care centers, Georgia officials have agreed to begin next year licensing private care providers who operate programs in public schools.

Georgia has been one of only a handful of states that do not subject school-based programs run by outside providers to child-care rules covering such areas as staff training, equipment safety, and transportation.

The private providers have argued that the school-based programs--which already have a strong appeal to parents on the basis of cost and convenience--had an unfair advantage in not being covered by the regulations.

As is true in most states, child-care programs operated directly by Georgia public-school systems will continue to be exempt from the regulations.

The Georgia debate over regula4tion of school-based care also has shed light on concerns raised by private providers in other states as growing numbers of public schools offer child care.

The Hawaii education department, for example, upset some providers last year when it launched a low-cost after-school program that they said undercut their market.

The Hawaii department has since established a process for schools to contract with outside providers, however. (See Education Week, March 14, 1990.)

Other states, such as Tennessee, also have been asked in recent years to clarify their stand on competition between schools and private providers. And pressure from providers in states such as Virginia up until recently has been "instrumental" in8limiting school-based programs, noted Ellen Gannett, associate director of the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women.

Because schools that contract with private providers furnish either free or low-cost space with most operating costs already covered, such programs can charge parents lower rates than other private providers. In Georgia, school-based programs charge from $15 to $20 a week on average, while private programs charge about $35.

Add to that advantage the convenience of "one stop" settings for school and child care, and the result is an "unequal situation" for other private providers, maintained Lynn White, executive director of the Georgia Child Care Association.

The group, which represents about 450, or a third, of Georgia's for-profit and nonprofit child-care centers, has long urged that providers in school and nonschool settings be subject to the same regulations.

Doing so, the group argues, will both ensure a "level playing field'' in the child-care marketplace and help protect the health and safety of children in school-based care.

"The mandate was there for the department [of human resources] to license, but they have dragged their feet," Ms. White said.

After-school programs run by y.m.c.a.'s and other providers outside schools have always been regulated, said Jo Cato, director of child-care licensing for the state department of human resources.

But in 1985, as growing numbers of districts began offering school-based programs, the state attorney general issued a memorandum exempting them from licensing.

As more public systems began contracting out for child care, state officials sought further guidance from the attorney general in 1987. At that point, they "were advised that if [a school's program] was operated by outside entities, it was subject to licensure," Ms. Cato said.

Even so, the department up to now has failed to garner state funding to add those programs to its workload, she said. Beginning early in 1991, however, it plans to start licensing them, just as new state rules for school-age child care are also slated to take effect.

Ms. White noted that the gcca recently threatened to sue the department to force compliance with what it considers a longstanding mandate to license private providers, whether they operate in schools or centers.

"We realize it's a legal mandate, so we have re-established our priorities" to fund it, Ms. Cato said.

Most of the 44 districts in the state that offer child care have programs that are run by schools, and thus are exempt from the regulations. The rules will cover only the 25 percent run by private providers, noted Anne Graham, coordinator of the advocacy group Georgia School-Age Child-Care Council, and many of those already exceed the state's "minimal" standards.

"Licensing is no big leap forward in terms of quality," she said, ''but we certainly agree that where there are minimal standards, they need to apply" to all providers.

The state regulates such things as equipment safety, numbers of toilets, provision of snacks, and transportation standards, Ms. Cato said. It also sets minimum staff-training requirements, addresses criminal-records checks and corporal punishment, and encourages programs to offer a variety of age-appropriate activities.

Tracey Horton, program associate for the DeKalb y.w.c.a., which runs after-school programs serving more than 400 children in 19 schools, said the prospect of licensing will pose "no drastic change."

While Ms. Horton and others have voiced concern that school buildings may not meet the facility requirements under the child-care regulations, Ms. Cato suggested that those provisions are likely to be waived as long as school-based programs meet the "intent" of the rules.

Ms. Graham and other child-care advocates in the state also dispute private providers' claims that they are facing unfair competition from school-based programs.

There are still some 400,000 children who need "latchkey" programs, advocates point out.

"There are enough children to go around," Ms. Graham said.

Licensing is not likely to prevent private providers from losing business to school-based programs, Ms. White conceded. But beyond issues of competition, she argued, "it is a health and safety issue."

Children "need different things" in recreational programs than during a structured school day, she said. And education departments, she argued, are not as equipped or apt as licensing bodies to monitor issues such as overcrowding of school buses, responsibility for children's whereabouts, and training of child-care providers.

While encouraged by the state's move to license outside providers in schools, Ms. White said her group will still press state officials to move to license school-run programs.

According to the School-Age Child Care Project, all but 11 states exempt programs operated by schools, on the theory that such pro4grams fall under the jurisdiction of state education departments. But a 1988 survey by the project showed that in 22 states, "there was confusion" about whether recreational, summer, or school-vacation programs are subject to licensing.

"This is all pretty new for schools, so it is taking time for good procedures to evolve," said Gwen Morgan, a lecturer at Wheelock College and a policy analyst at the Cambridge-based Work/Family Directions.

Recognizing that they may not address child-care issues or have the enforcement power of licensers, education departments in Minnesota and elsewhere are drafting their own child-care rules, Ms. Gannett noted.

Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio have statutes requiring their departments of education to apply child-Continued on Following Page Continued from Preceding Page

care standards "no less stringent than those of licensing," Ms. Morgan said.

The Children's Defense Fund, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and the School-Age Child Care Project all maintain children should be offered the same health and safety protections regardless of provider.

While schools often exceed state regulations for school-age child care, their staff ratios, equipment, and facilities may fall short in preschool programs, said Gina Adams, a senior child-care specialist at the c.d.f.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1989 launched a joint effort with the n.a.e.y.c. to adopt new accreditation standards for preschool programs.

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