MARIETTA, Ga.- Parents often spend weeks visiting dozens of day care centers and preschools before finding one they like, but the state hopes to cut down on that leg work with a new rating system.
The state is rolling out its first-ever quality rating system for child care centers, in-home day cares and preschools, part of an effort to spur improvements in early care programs for children across the state.
Though the statewide system is voluntary, nearly 600 programs have signed up since it launched in January. That's far ahead of where state officials expected to be four months into the rating system, but it's just a fraction of the 6,300 early learning programs in the state.
"We can open a Zagat and look at ratings for restaurants. We can go into hair and nail salons and see what the health inspector said," said Mindy Binderman, head of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. "But there's no way for parents to evaluate whether a child care setting is quality."
Georgia has licensed day cares and preschools for years, but the new rating system will help parents identify programs that go above and beyond the bare minimum required by the state. Work on the system began a decade ago. Its rollout was halted for years because of state budget cuts.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who has made early education one of his top priorities, revived the push for the rating system after he took office in January 2011. But the state couldn't get the program up and running in time to win $70 million in federal funding from the "Race to the Top" grant competition for early learning programs.
At least 30 states already have such rating systems - and some have had them for years - putting Georgia behind much of the nation in gauging whether young children are getting quality care.
A 2010 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that more than three-quarters of in-home child care programs in Georgia and at least one-third of all private preschool programs were of low quality. Since then, the state has begun inspecting in-home day cares before granting licenses and requiring all employees to have 20 hours of training before the program opens.
An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published last month found the state paid millions in subsidies to day cares that didn't meet health and safety standards for child care. That represents about 10 percent of the child care programs in the state.
The newspaper also found that Georgia has been less aggressive than other states in revoking licenses for violations. Bobby Cagle, commissioner of the state Department of Early Care and Learning, said the rating system will help improve centers that fall below standards.
"We are confident that this is what's going to move us forward in having children more prepared for school and for success in later life," Cagle said.
On a recent day at the Sunshine School, a Jewish preschool in Marietta, 4-year-olds painted butterflies, while down the hall, a prekindergarten class learned about Israel. A class of 2-year-olds sang songs in English and Hebrew, shaking tambourines and clapping cymbals.
The school, which has 90 students from a variety of faiths, was among the first to sign up for the state's rating system after participating in the pilot last year.
"By going through this and committing to it, you are really helping to ensure you're doing what's in the best interest of children," said school director Raye Lynn Banks. "You're looking at all areas."
The public won't see the scores until next year, but already early learning programs are touting that they've enrolled in the rating system and are working on everything from serving healthy food to designing age-appropriate curriculum. Even companies with multiple centers like KinderCare have agreed to take part.
Programs that sign up for the rating system will get grants of up to $4,000 to help them improve their scores with new equipment, professional development for teachers and innovative activities for children. Some of that money can go toward small bonuses for teachers and administrators at centers that rate highly.
For parents like Seth Miller, who has three children in day care in Smyrna outside Atlanta, the rating system would mean not spending countless hours searching for the best place for his children.
"Especially when you're a first time parent or a parent new to day care, there are so many unknowns," said Miller, whose children attend the day care at his wife's company. "Every place you go, they love children and they all care deeply about children and they all would love to have your child there. That's the siren song."