Despite critical needs, Kansas families lack early childhood support when they need it most

Despite critical needs, Kansas families lack early childhood support when they need it most

State leaders, experts and advocates for early childhood met in Wichita in early October for a symposium convened by Governor Laura Kelly and a forum conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is part of a process to create a new vision for early childhood Kansas. Here are key points from speakers at those meetings, a state needs assessment conducted by four state agencies and research by KASB.

  1. Kansas needs to raise the education levels of its workforce and the biggest challenge to higher educational attainment is the unequal conditions students face outside of school.
  2. Educational differences begin before children enter kindergarten.
  3. Despite the importance of preschool years, parents are provided the least support for educating their children at the time they need the most help.
  4. Childcare is important because many households now need all parents to work to make ends meet. Even many working parents are low income.
  5. Access to early childhood programs is a struggle for many families, affecting their income, educational future of their children, and the Kansas workforce.
  6. High quality childcare for preschool-aged children can help address these issues.

Details:

Kansas needs to increase raise the education levels of its workforce and the biggest challenge to higher educational attainment is the unequal conditions students face outside of school.

The more education people complete, the more likely they are to be employed, be out of poverty and off public assistance, and earning at least a middle-class standard of living. This is because most jobs now require more education than in the past, and those jobs pay more.

This also helps the state economy, because businesses need skilled workers to operate, expand or locate in Kansas. In fact, the Kansas workforce (those working and actively looking for work) has declined in the past decade. Kansas is in competition with other states and countries trying to raise their own educational levels. That’s why Wichita business leader and philanthropist Barry Downing called the current situation a “crisis” and warned that we are falling behind.

While education levels in Kansas have continued to improve, there are big gaps in achievement that pull down overall success. Lower income students, students with disabilities, English Language Learners and others lag behind their non-lower-income peer in every educational measurement. For example, students who do not qualify for free or reduced meals already meet the state graduation rate goal of 95 percent, but for lower income students, only about 75 percent complete high school. These gaps have a big impact on educational outcomes because they affect so many students. About one in five Kansas children live below the poverty line; another 20-25 percent are below an“middle class” standard of living; over 45 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Educational differences begin before children enter kindergarten.

Although we may still think of “education” as beginning at kindergarten, children begin learning immediately, whether they are in school or not. Birth to five is probably the most critical time in a child’s development.  Sarah Lytle, Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, told Legislators at the NCSL forum that children will thrive when their basic needs are met, and they have relationships with caring and responsive adults. But many children do not always have that support.

About one-quarter of children say they have experienced two or more of the following adverse childhood experiences (ACES): Frequent socioeconomic hardship, parental divorce or separation, parental death, parental incarceration, family violence, neighborhood violence, living with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal, living with someone who had a substance abuse problem, or racial bias.

Low income children are especially likely to experience hunger, lack of medical and dental care, face family instability and other trauma. About 5 percent of children lack health insurance; over one-fifth of children have not had preventative dental care in the past year; 35 percent of out-of-home foster care placements are children birth to five. In 2015, 9,000 students were homeless.

Not all children experiencing these issues are preschool aged, but such issues can have a profound impact on the youngest children because so much brain development takes place from age zero to five. The experience of young children shapes the way brain connections are formed. As Lytle explained, stress – particularly “toxic stress” associated with the adverse experiences listed above – has the same impact constantly “revving” a car has on its engineer: it stops working as well as it should.

This toxic stress helps explain why so many educators are reporting young children with serious emotional, behavioral and other issues, and struggle in school compared to their peers.

Despite the importance of preschool years, parents are provided the least support for educating their children at the time they need the most help.

At age five, every child in Kansas is guaranteed a free public education until age 18, including transportation for children living more than 2.5 miles from school (and provided for many others as well).  Over 90 percent of school-aged children are educated in public schools, essentially at no cost except for certain fees.

Even after high school, the state helps support a university system, provides funding to match local tax revenues for community and technical colleges, and grants for students at private universities. The federal government provides need-based grants and other aid, and students can borrow federally backed and subsidized loans to cover the cost of tuition. Although student debt can be a serious problem, at least it can be paid back over future years, usually with higher earnings if students complete a program.

By contrast, there is no guaranteed system of support for early childhood education. Children under five may be cared for by parents, other family members or friends, in licensed family homes or centers, federally funded Head Start programs, or school-based preschool or special education programs. Children are “learning” in each of these settings, but the quality of that learning differs based on what can be provided. Care outside of the home depends on whether the program is available, whether it fits the parent’s schedule, and if they afford to pay for themselves or qualify for limited numbers of childcare subsidies or slots in public programs. In fact, many children will experience multiple settings and programs.

As a result, parents pay the majority of the cost of childcare, about 57 percent, according to some experts, while public funding pays about 39 percent and the balance from business and private philanthropy, according to Benjamin Horowitz, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Although families are expected to pay the largest share of the cost, families with young children usually have the fewest resources to pay for childcare and early education. Mr. Horowitz told the NCSL forum that parents of children aged 0-5 earn 8-9 percent less per hour than the average of all parents; parents of children from 14-17 earn 10 percent more. Not only do parents of young children earn less per hour worked, they also work fewer hours than other parents. That’s expected because those are the parents most likely to be staying home with young children.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that families with young children are much more likely to be poor. The Kansas poverty rate for 18-34-year-olds is 18.4 percent, more than double the rate of older Kansas.

Childcare is important because many households now need all parents to work to make ends meet. Even many working parents are low income.

Public education evolved when most families had a parent to raise their children at home until age five or six. Now, most parents are working. In almost 70 percent of families with children under six, all available parents are in the workforce. For children living with a mother only, it’s over 75 percent. (U.S. Census, American Fact Finder) Without at least one parent working full-time, families are far more likely to be in poverty. Employment is key. Part-time workers’ poverty rates (18.6 percent) are almost as high as the unemployed (19.9 percent); both are six times higher than full-time workers (2.9 percent). Almost 20 percent of Kansas children live in families where no parent has worked at least 35 hours for 50 weeks in the previous 12 months. So, it’s no surprise families of young children headed by single mothers, who likely have the most difficulties in being employed but with no spouse contributing income, have eight times the poverty rate of married couples with no children.

Despite economic improvements over the past decade, nearly 20 percent of Kansas children under the age of five live in poverty. The U.S. Census (American Fact Finder) says over 45 percent of Kansas households earn less than $50,000, which means most are below the minimum income to be considered “middle class” in Kansas (about $47,000 for a family of four, according the Pew Research Center). Nearly half of low-income Kansas families spend over 30 percent of income on housing and related costs, limiting what is available for food, clothing, and medical care.

Unless a parent can stay home with young children or depend on family or friends, it is impossible to work without childcare. But for many low-income families, even if working, childcare be very difficult to afford if it is available at all.

Access to early childhood programs is a struggle for many families, affecting their income, educational future of their children, and the Kansas workforce.

According to Child Care Aware of America, the average annual cost to attend a childcare center in Kansas is almost $11,000 per year, and the average cost of home-based care is $6,749. Although childcare costs vary significantly by location in Kansas, by type of program, and by age of the child, it is easy to see how a family with two children could spend $10,000 per year to care for children while working, which is almost 40 percent of the maximum poverty threshold income of $25,000 for a family of four; and 20 percent of family income at $50,000.

While the state provides some subsidies for childcare, the number of Kansas children served has decreased from 20,319 per month in 2010 to 8,823 in 2019 (60 percent). There are an estimated 37,000 children in poverty under age 5, and nearly 80,000 from five to 17. Less than half of childcare facilities accept subsidies, and most subsidies do not cover the full cost of the program.

For many families, simply finding early childhood can be a challenge. An estimated 44 percent of Kansas children live in a “childcare desert– any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 with either no childcare providers or more than three times as many children as licensed childcare slots. Less than 10 percent of Kansas childcare facilities offer “non-traditional” hours for parents working irregular shifts. The number of in-home childcare providers has decreased 35 percent over the past eight years. While school districts have expanded preschool slots for three-and four-years-old’s, most offer only half-day preschool, and few provide services for infants and toddlers up to two years of age.

When parents can’t find programs for their children and can’t work, they are likely to increase economic stress on their family. In addition, they are removed from the labor force at a time when Kansas businesses are struggling to find workers. The result is deep disparities in educational opportunities for young children, which last throughout school years and beyond.

High quality childcare for preschool-aged children can help address these issues.

Quality early childhood programs can allow parents to work more or pursue additional education to increase income if they choose. The programs provide a setting where children learn socialization with others and master basic skills to be prepared for success in school. Quality early childhood programs can offer home visits to connect with parents, help direct them to services and resources, and identify children with special needs more quickly, reducing long-term issues and costs.

The Minneapolis Fed’s Benjamin Horowitz presented longitudinal research over several decades from early childhood programs. Multiple researchers have compared the results of children in these programs with random comparison groups and found “returns on investment” of from four-to-one to 16-to-one. The studies compared the cost of supporting high quality programs with improved education outcomes leading to higher earnings, less spending on special education, better health outcomes, reduced welfare costs and reduced crime costs.

This national data is supported by research on The Opportunity Project in Wichita.

After months of data gathering, community and parent input and two high-level meetings, it is clear Kansas will have to improve support for its youngest learners if it is going to meet its educational, workforce and economic goals.

Four state agencies – the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, Department of Education, Department of Children and Families and Department of Health and Environment – are preparing a federal grant application for expanded early childhood education support. That effort is part of a broader state planning process for initiatives Governor Laura Kelly is expected to present to the 2020 Kansas Legislature.

Information from NCSL early learning forum in Kansas: http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/kansas-early-learning-forum.aspx