By Sarah Gooding
March 10, 2016

State lawmakers are eyeing funding changes that could dramatically impact early childhood education in Southeastern Kansas.

The funds in question were allocated to the state in 1999 from a settlement with tobacco companies, which has been designated for early childhood education in the years since. However, a couple of proposals have named them as a possible solution for the state’s general fund shortfalls.

“At the beginning of the legislative session, the governor’s budget recommended sweeping $57 million from the Kansas Endowment for Youth (KEY) and Children’s Initiative Fund (CIF) with the understanding that the children’s programs would still be funded through the state’s general fund,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children. “That proposal was rejected by both the house and the senate.”

However, Senate Bill 463 would abolish both KEY and CIF, which route the tobacco settlement dollars to local early childhood entities, directing all the revenues in each, along with the Expanded Lottery Act Revenues Fund and the State Economic Development Initiatives Fund, to the state’s general fund.

Cotsoradis said the state then could distribute up to $50 million to early childhood programs, but the funding would be more tenuous, without the assurance those dollars would continue to go to children.

“It’s hard to imagine, given the current fiscal situation, that there would be any room to absorb any children’s programs into the state general fund,” Cotsoradis said.

On a local level, a loss of funding could change the childcare and early childhood education landscapes in Southeast Kansas.

“The tobacco settlement dollars have been a steady source of funding, providing services in Crawford, Cherokee and Bourbon counties,” said Monica Murnan, who is a city commissioner in Pittsburg and is the past executive director of The Family Resource Center in Pittsburg. “Over $15 million has come into Pittsburg over these last years, and it has all gone out to support where kids are, and it has supported the operation of The Center.

“That enables The Center to keep qualified staff and to provide infant and toddler care.”

Murnan said in addition to The Center, home childcare centers, church preschools and Parents as Teachers are just some of the many area programs which rely on the KEY and CIF funding stream.

These funds come to The Center, where they are distributed to 34 providers in a four-county area.

“We handle a grant for Crawford, Bourbon, Cherokee and Neosho,” said Ann Elliott, executive director at The Center. “We distribute it out. When we work with providers, we give them some dollars for doing quality childcare, and they do certain types of assessments to see where the children are developmentally.”

The grant funds then help with at-risk programs for those 34 providers, including helping finance some of The Center’s preschool and infant-toddler classrooms.

“If this all goes away and we no longer have it, I would have to look really hard at what rooms we could keep going and what rooms we can’t,” Elliott said.

This, in turn, would impact school readiness in the area’s young children.

“It would impact them a lot, because the classrooms that would be closing are children with risk factors, so we do want them ready for kindergarten when they hit the door,” Elliott said.

Cotsoradis said this is problematic, because of how much development and formation takes place in children’s earliest years.

“We know that in the first five years of a child’s life, 90 percent of their brain development is complete, so it really is a critical window in the lifelong development,” she said.

A loss of funds also would have an immediate economic impact on the region, where many families already struggle to find affordable, educational childcare.

“There’s a waiting list,” Elliott said. “Most places, it’s really hard to find childcare.”

This is especially at the infant and toddler levels, where low staff to child ratios are mandated and it becomes a challenge to break even.

“It really is the cornerstone of funding for the early childhood system,” Cotsoradis said, adding: “This is probably the biggest threat we have had to these funds.”

Murnan agreed.

“The hole would be devastating, both to the operations of The Center and to all the infrastructure that has been developed in the counties,” she said.

The bill may be worked by the committee as soon as Friday of this week, but advocates said the threat remains even if the bill does not make it out of committee.

“As long as the state keeps having shortfalls, they’re looking around for dollars that they could utilize,” Elliott said.

She and Cotsoradis recommended contacting any of the 11 members on the Senate Ways and Means committee, including Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, as well as voicing concerns to the governor’s office.

Read more from the Pittsburg Morning Sun.