Child Care Licensing is the Foundation of Quality Care

Jan 12, 2011

By Teresa Lim

The National Association for Regulatory Administration (NARA) has released a new policy brief that highlights the importance of updating child care licensing regulations to reflect what is currently known about early childhood development. The brief also explains the components of a child care licensing system and offers six recommendations to federal agencies to promote consistent protection and quality care across states.

Child care licensing policies and regulations are the foundation on which other quality measures are built. They lay out critical standards of health and safety that providers must meet as well as other requirements to protect the well-being of children in child care. According to 2008 licensing data, more than 300,000 child care facilities are licensed throughout the U.S. Just over half (60 percent) of these licensed programs are family child care homes, and almost a third (32 percent) are child care centers.

States set their own licensing rules, requirements, and enforcement practices. However, there are three general parts to a licensing program: the licensing statute, the licensing rules/requirements, and the licensing agency. It is critical that each of these parts is examined and revised as needed in order to build an effective licensing system.   

In the new policy brief, NARA identifies various features and indicators of a strong licensing program. Among them, NARA notes that strong programs have statutes that provide a full continuum of enforcement options, ranging from instruction to injunction, to ensure compliance. In addition, they have licensing rules that consider all aspects of a child's well-being, including a child's physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Licensing agencies should have enough staff to support routine monitoring of child care facilities. Inspections should be conducted twice a year or more as needed, and inspectors should not have caseloads of more than 50-60 facilities. Currently, only eight states meet this caseload recommendation.

Strong child care licensing programs are an important step to building quality child care. Without strong standards, and funding to support monitoring and assistance for programs in meeting standards, additional quality improvement initiatives become harder to implement.  For example, child care licensing is generally the first component of quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS). Most state QRIS require that providers be in compliance with licensing at the entry level. As states look to improve quality, it is crucial that there is a solid licensing foundation to begin with. 

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