How Preschool Works in Pennsylvania

Takeaway: Pennsylvania’s preschool system, though underfunded and thus inaccessible to many families across the state, has taken a promising turn over the last few years. The state’s preschool search feature — one of the best in the country — is thorough and easy to use, and its standards regarding licensing and staff education and experience are strict, centralized, and simple to access (though perhaps less simple to read). Though its unlicensed providers lack formal guidelines, Pennsylvania has made an effort over the past decade to distribute guidelines and best practices to enable them to give children the best and safest care possible.

Overview

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services licensing standards for child care programs are quite simple and largely consistent with those in many other states. The department draws distinctions among child care centers, group child care homes, and family child care homes. All relevant statutes — featuring thorough guidelines about compliance with codes, emergency plans, requirements of facility directors, staff-to-child ratios, accommodations for children with special needs (and accompanying IEPs and IFSPs), safe types of paint, toys and play equipment, toilet areas, stoves, proper infant sleep position, driver qualifications and necessary vehicle safety restraints, best practices when a staff member is showing symptoms of illness, and nearly anything else a parent might want to know about — are readily available in a very easily accessible format and in a centralized location. Having said that, these guidelines are written in legalese, which may be off-putting to some readers.

Pennsylvania’s database search, which is extremely detailed yet still straightforward and navigable, is among the best in the country. Searches can be filtered by age group, program type, county, and program details. Results display contact information, group size, hours of operation, quality, pricing, age range, and special accommodations.

Pennsylvania has begun to push for universal preschool and hopes to have a statewide program enrolling 3- and 4-year-olds by 2018. It has struggled, however, to find concrete solutions to fund such an ambitious plan. As of August 2015, state-funded Head Start and Pre-K Counts programs only had enough funds to enroll about 17 percent of kids in quality child care. Pennsylvania’s recent legislative track record regarding pre-K funding may be a positive indicator of things to come, though. After several years of cuts, Pennsylvania increased state preschool funding by $6.4 million just before the 2013–2014 school year. The commonwealth was also a recipient of a federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, which led to a $51.7 million investment in preschool programs.

Center-Based Care

Pennsylvania defines a child care center as a facility that accommodates more than six children, none of whom should be related to the licensee. This also extends to care at a parent’s workplace or before or after school at non-public schools. As mentioned above, Pennsylvania’s licensing standards are only available in the form of a legal document, a fact that makes all the regulations consistent, uniform, and easy to access, navigate, and search. They’re also cross-referenced with school-related and other relevant codes, again ensuring uniformity and clarity. The downside for some is that they’re not written as simply as those of other states.

Pennsylvania mandates a ratio of 1:4 for children from birth to 1 year of age, with a maximum group size of 8. Required ratios for 1- to 2-year-olds are 1:5 and 2:10, with a cap at 10. For 2- to 3-year-olds, the required ratio is 1:6, with a maximum of 12. Groups of preschool-aged children (age 3 to their entry into kindergarten) should never exceed 20, and one caregiver may care for 10 children at most. In centers accommodating children of mixed ages, the ratio and maximum group size are dictated by the youngest child present.

Centers must allow both announced and unannounced inspection at any time. Staff are required to be at least 18 years old, and must be certified in CPR, first aid, and fire safety. They must also have completed a minimum of 600 curriculum hours approved by the Department of Education, including at least 400 hours of classroom instruction and 200 hours of supervised on-the-job training in a licensed child care facility. In addition to earning either a Certified Childcare Professional or a Child Development Associate credential (both of which include nine credit-hours at the college level and one year of experience with kids), staff are required to complete annual child care training in topics including child supervision, nutrition, child health, professional development, and discipline.

Parents have free access to the facility whenever children are in care and should also have the opportunity to participate in facility programs. Daily activities are required to be written up and placed in view of all children and parents. Activities should promote skill development, social competence, and self-esteem. Parental consent (in writing) is required in order for a center to provide emergency medical care or first aid, to give a child medication or to accommodate dietary restrictions, or to transport children (or even take them swimming or on walks). Parents are also allowed to view inspection records and other regulatory documents.

Home-Based Care

There are two types of family care programs: group child care homes and family child care homes.

Group child care homes provide care for seven to 12 children of mixed ages. Staff are held to the same high standard of education and experience as those working in child care centers, but the required staff-to-child ratios are slightly different. An appropriate ratio for children from birth to 1 year is 1:4, with a maximum group size of 12 (which would accordingly require three caregivers). For those from 1 to 2 years old, group care homes must abide by a ratio of 1:5 with a cap at 12 children. A group of this size would mandate three staff members. Kids from 2 to 3 require a 1:6 or a 2:12 ratio, with 12 being the largest acceptable group size. For kids from age 3 to their entry into kindergarten, legal ratios are 1:10 and 2:12, where 12 is the maximum group size. Just as in child care centers, when ages are mixed, the youngest child’s age determines the ratio that should be in effect.

Pennsylvania also enforces strict rules regarding the physical space of group child care homes: Rooms or other indoor spaces can only be used as a child care or a recreation area at any one time; kids can’t rest or nap in the same area in which others are exercising; no spaces can be used to conduct other business while kids are present; and a space should be large enough that it provides each child with 40 square feet. Outdoor space should be safe (and unsafe elements should be fenced off to restrict access); should enable each child to have 65 square feet to herself at any given time; and should be large enough to accommodate activities such as climbing and running.

Family child care homes are similar to the two forms of care already discussed. Like the others, they must be licensed by the Department of Human Services, but they are only allowed to care for groups of three to six kids at a time. Requirements regarding staff age, experience, and education, facility inspection and regulation, and both indoor and outdoor space are the same as those already discussed. The only major differences are in the required staff-to-child ratios.

Family child care homes only require one staff member to be employed, and this individual may care for six kids, provided they’re all older than 3. A provider may care for five children under 3 if no infants (babies younger than 1) are present. If the provider is responsible for one infant, then that person may care for four kids under 3; if the provider responsible for two infants, then that person may only care for three kids under 3.

Unlicensed Care

Any home-based provider who cares for three or fewer children is exempt from licensing and is thus unregulated by the state. Most unlicensed caregivers are relatives without formal child care training; a majority are grandparents. Specific information as to the state of unlicensed care is unavailable, but as of 2008, a Pennsylvania task force proposed a set of best practices aimed at helping legally unlicensed providers identify milestones in child development and provide the best care possible.

Discover Pennsylvania preschools near you using the free Noodle preschool search, the most comprehensive tool of its kind.