High-quality, affordable early childhood programs needed in Kansas

In a conference room full of childcare providers, parents, political leaders and state agency officials, a Wichita businessman had the clearest message. 

“This is a crisis,” said business leader and philanthropist Barry Downing. “To compete in a global economy, we need more students to get more education and parents to be able to work. That means we need to increase quality and access of early learning, because we are way behind.” 

Downing, a panelist at Gov. Laura Kelly’s Symposium on Early Childhood on Monday in Wichita, launched a highly regarded program called The Opportunity Project in 2003, providing funding for high quality early childhood programs at three sites in Wichita for economically disadvantaged children and then tracking how those student did in school compared to students without those programs. 

Like many other studies, the results showed students who received high quality early childhood services have tended to have better results like attendance, test scores and graduation, leading to greater chances of completing postsecondary education, higher lifetime earnings and meeting state employment needs. 

However, many Kansas children do not have those opportunities. Speakers and participants at the symposium explored these reasons why, backed up by months of data collection, community and parent conversations and stakeholder meetings. 

  • Quality childcare is simply too expensive for many parents, especially the 40 to 50 percent of children who live in low-income families. Even if parents can’t pay, it is extremely difficult to find child care for non-traditional working hours, like evening or night shifts, or for students with special needs. As a result, lowincome parents who can’t find child care can’t work, further lowering their income. 
  • Because many children enter public schools with little preparation of higher academic expectations and many basic needs unmet, there is a significant “achievement gap” based on family income, disability and other factors. This gap persists through K-12 education and means children from disadvantaged families are less likely to reach educational levels to advance economically. 
  • Childcare is expensive and mostly paid by parents at a time in their lives where their ability to pay is likely lowest. That is unlike K-12 education, which is almost entirely paid by public funding at the local, state and federal governments, or even public higher education, which is funded by a mix of state and local funds, tuition, federal student aid and loans that can be re-paid over time with higher earnings. 
  • Although expensive to parents, childcare would be even more expensive if child care workers were paid comparable to other professionals working with children, such as elementary teachers. Most childcare workers earn about $10 an hour, far short of the $15 per hour often considered the minimum “middle class” wage, and have limited health insurance and no retirement plans. That means childcare providers struggle to keep staff, maintain safe facilities or even stay in business. 
  • Unlike the K-12 system, where about 90 percent of children attend public schools, pre-K programs are divided between public programs like Head Start or school district programs for at-risk or special education students, other school districts programs which might charge fees, center-based programs which often have higher quality but cost more, licensed in-home family programs, military programs or having children cared for by family members and friends. Many, if not most, children will be in several of these programs. 
  • There are significant differences in these programs in terms of costs, eligibility for financial assistance or attendance, regulation and oversight. This means families face a confusing array of programs and perhaps difficulty moving among them, and providers trying to serve children face different requirements for funding, licensing and other issues. 

Kansas leaders with oversight of early childhood programs are now working on proposals to address these issues. Two major ideas have been advanced: Creating a new state-level coordinating council for different agencies and establishing a “public-private partnership” that could blend private funding from business and philanthropy with state and local funding of public agencies to share expenses, reduce costs to families and improve quality. 

Speakers from other states that have such partnerships offered some advice for Kansas, and state agency leaders also had recommendations. 

First, it must have broad, bi-partisan support to sustain public funding and endure over changes in governors and legislators and have strong “buy-in” across the state. 

Second, it must force collaboration across different state agencies and local programs. 

Third, it must include clear accountability measures. Proponents must lead with their own vision of accountability or it will be forced on them. 

Fourth, a publicprivate partnership must include business leaders, parents and private providers. Educators must learn the language of the private sector. Kansas Secretary of Commerce Dave Toland urged early childhood advocates to “make the business case” to improve quality and access. 

Fifth, we must be willing to imagine a new system, and be willing to give some things up. Education Commissioner Randy Watson noted that the current education article in the Kansas Constitution was created when public education began at age five or six and younger children stayed home with parents. “That world doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “We have to change the system to meet what families need today. 

Share this post