Report calls for reforms in state child-care laws

COLUMBIA -- Last year, a 10-month-old died after a north Columbia child-care provider left the child in a day-care van for seven hours.

In an unrelated case, another provider was charged in the homicides of three children, one of whom died while at a Northeast Richland center that was operating illegally.

While extreme, these examples illustrate the flaws in South Carolina's child-care system, say parents and child advocates.

A report, released Wednesday by a state task force headed by the state's S.C. First Steps agency and the United Way, recommends ways the state should tackle its child-care problem.

The problem is complex.

Not only is it difficult for many parents to find affordable care, many also struggle to determine the kind of care their children will receive at the centers.

On the flip side, many day-care providers lack the money to pay their workers higher wages or to enhance the quality of their programs.

"It's a really tough place that providers find themselves in," said Susan DeVenny, director of First Steps and co-chairwoman of the task force. "They want to make quality improvements (to their centers) but can't pass the cost along to parents."

The report, commissioned by state lawmakers, suggests:

• A voluntary rating system that grades child-care centers on criteria including employees' education, credentials and teaching techniques. A similar initiative in 2004, which also would have made ratings voluntary, failed. Ratings would build on an existing grading program used to disperse federal child-care funds to low-income families.

• New scholarship programs for students pursuing degrees in early childhood education and related fields. Also, child-care workers could qualify for wage supplements after additional course work or earning certain child-care credentials.

• An overhaul of the state's child-care tax credit so child care is made more affordable for families. The task force recommends the state's current child-care tax credit of 7 percent be increased, be made refundable for those who don't pay taxes and be tied to the quality of the child-care center. "The better the quality of the center, the higher tax credit (parents) could get," said Tim Ervolina, president of the United Way Association of South Carolina and task force co-chairman.

• Incentives for centers to improve, including grants, small loans and business tax credits linked to their ratings and enrollment. For example, in Maine, providers who spend at least $10,000 in one year for quality improvements are offered a $1,000 tax credit each year for up to 10 years.

But the task force has not put a price tag on the recommendations and faces an uphill battle.

This year's budget crunch means there are few dollars for such expansive changes. And for several years, some state legislators have been resistant to ponying up more dollars for early childhood initiatives.

Task force members say some initial changes can be implemented without new dollars. For example, First Steps, the Department of Social Services and various nonprofits are looking at new ways to partner with each other and spend their collective dollars.

But, long term, the task force will need lawmakers to champion their recommendations and loosen the state's purse strings.