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Rating system for child care

David Samson / The Forum Linda Lembke announces Thursday at the United Way in Fargo the launching of a new pilot program that will rate daycares and child care providers in the Fargo-Moorhead area. The Quality Rating and Improvement System is the first of its kind in North Dakota.

FARGO -- A first-of-its-kind program in North Dakota will help parents gauge the quality of their kids' child care provider.

United Way of Cass-Clay unveiled plans Thursday for a quality ratings system that will set and evaluate uniform quality standards for child care providers in Clay and Cass Counties while revealing results online for the public.

"We really felt that this was a priority," United Way of Cass-Clay President Judy Green said. "It's our investment."

It follows on the heels of the North Dakota Legislature's last session, in which policymakers discussed including a similar state-wide system in a child care bill.

Instead, House Bill 1418 passed with support for increasing training and recruiting of child care workers in the state, but without a rating system.

"That's why United Way chose to invest in this," Green said.

Early child care advocate Linda Lembke lobbied for a ratings system at the Capitol. But, she said, some legislators wanted to cut the bill's costs while others worried a rating system would deter people from starting child care businesses.

"There was concern this would reduce child care," she said.

Lembke heads Moorhead-based Lakes and Prairies Child Care Resource and Referral, which was contracted by United Way to carry out the program.

United Way is supplying a $135,000 grant for the program, which is slated to launch in January.

Child care providers, both home-based and center-based, will receive $2,000 to $12,000 grants as incentives to help support and sustain quality care.

Providers will be rated on a one-to-five star basis, although Lembke said a Web site likely won't launch for another year.

Still, North Dakota will now join Minnesota and 18 other states with similar pilot programs; 19 others have full statewide rating systems.

"We've received a great response from parents," said Elizabeth Cooper of the Minnesota Child Care Resource and Referral Network. "They really want a sense of what programs are working."

The state's pilot program rates 300-plus child care providers in the Twin Cities and southern Minnesota. It ends in 2011, but "we're certainly hoping Minnesota will start a statewide program" then, Cooper added.

It's a wish echoed by Lembke, who hopes the success of this pilot program proves to legislators it's worth the investment in a statewide program when they convene for the 2011 session.

"It's giving parents another tool to make decisions for quality child care," she said. "That's the accountability part in all of this. I hope North Dakota is on its way to considering it."

Kelly Smith is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.