When Rhode Island set out to improve the way it supports its neediest children, state policymakers decided not to reinvent the wheel.
Rather than construct an entirely new system for preschool-age youngsters, they began by beefing up and adding to the state’s well-established program of child-care subsidies, which gives families vouchers to use in paying for the services that best fit their needs.
The expansion started in 1996, when the legislature first made the assistance an entitlement for any family earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The move was seen as essential for the success of concurrent efforts by the state to help move people off welfare and into work.
“If you’re eligible, we’ll serve you,” says Reeva Murphy, an official in the state human services department. “We couldn’t even legally have a waiting list.”
Boosting Access and Quality
Gov. Lincoln C. Almond, a Republican, upped the ante significantly in 1998 with a multifaceted initiative called Starting RIght.
The measure set in motion plans to raise income eligibility for the subsidy to 250 percent of the poverty level over the next few years. It also hiked the reimbursement rates for providers that serve parents who use the aid. And it offered state-supported medical coverage to those who provide center- and family-based child care.
The idea behind the initiative was to boost both access and quality.
Since the launch of Starting RIght, the number of children whose parents use the subsidies annually has nearly doubled, to more than 12,000.
Meanwhile, directing additional state support to those who provide child-care services has helped to bolster a workforce traditionally plagued by low wages and high turnover.
“We weren’t just satisfied with having a safe place for kids to be, but we also wanted high-quality services for them,” says Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, an advocacy group. “And we also recognized that high quality means, above all else, that we are able to pay wages that begin to take care of the people taking care of our children.”
At the same time, Starting RIght also laid the groundwork for expanding the number of providers in the state offering comprehensive services in early-childhood education.
Grants for Networks
Under a new grant project, which is part of Starting Right, Rhode Island is awarding money to networks of providers in local communities.
They are expected to offer programs similar to the federally financed Head Start program, through which participating children receive a wide range of health, nutrition, education, and other school-readiness services.
Last year, the first four networks to receive grants began serving about 200 children. Eligibility is limited to families with incomes below 108 percent of the poverty level.
“There’s tremendous innovation to be looked at in Rhode Island,” says Helen Blank, the director of early-childhood education at the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund. “They understood that you have to address many parts of the system to make this work, both with parents and with caregivers.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week