Kansas communities tackle child care challenges with ingenuity, grit
Kansas Action for Children
July 30, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic brought into plain view what parents, providers, and advocates have known for years: We have a child care crisis in Kansas. The data is clear, the stories are numerous, and policymakers are taking an unprecedented interest in child care and early learning. Yet the problem persists.
Rather than stay in Topeka, the Kansas Action for Children team went directly to communities across Kansas to get the story behind the numbers. We contacted local officials, including chambers of commerce and economic development professionals, city council members and administrators, extension agents, and parents and engaged community members who recognized the need and wanted to act. No two communities we engaged were the same; each had unique challenges, strategies, and plans. We have summarized what we learned below. Spoiler alert: No community had all the answers, but every community had an answer to something. It is our hope that by highlighting the barriers, successes, and setbacks – along with how they were addressed – all Kansas communities can chart a path to their own child care success story.
Finney County Economic Development built a “bootcamp” program to help other communities address their child care needs. Seeing the negative effects of a shortage of child care on community growth, and the difficulty of expanding access, Finney County now invites communities to bring a cohort of stakeholders to a two-day training. Those days are designed to both show the whole child care picture and explain what it takes to set up and sustain a child care facility.
Alongside the bootcamp, Finney County is also in the process of developing the Finney County Childcare and Early Learning Network (FCCELN). This locally organized public-private partnership aims to provide comprehensive services for parents and providers. From connecting parents to care and resources, to helping providers with training and regulatory requirements, they aim to be a one-stop shop for child care. While still in the development phase, this initiative has the potential to bring the right people with the right resources to bear and make a positive difference for all parties.
While the community still needs additional care, Finney County is an example of the power of having community buy-in and innovative local solutions.
Wichita State University explored implementing a shared services model to operate micro-centers in the city. That is an approach where child care centers would work independently but share administrative and operational costs, making all the centers more financially sustainable. While they ultimately decided that was not a viable solution for them, that research led to legislation that would create a tax credit for employers who join a shared services system to provide child care for their employees (that bill is still pending in the Kansas Legislature).To look into other solutions to the child care shortage, community leaders formed a working group with representatives from business, non-profit, and early learning sectors. This group’s work is ongoing, and we will update this section with developments.
In the meantime, ChildStart, the child care resource and referral agency that serves Sedgwick County, started an initiative that works with individuals pursuing careers in child care. Prospective providers can attend an orientation to learn how to get started, but many either don’t complete orientation or don’t move forward with setting up a business. To reduce the barriers, ChildStart works with orientation attendees to address their individual needs. From the licensing application and fingerprinting to training and higher education, the agency offers technical assistance and financial aid to get folks across the finish line.
Following the closure of two home-based child care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic, community members in Highland took it upon themselves to address the resulting child care shortfall. This local, grassroots group has made tremendous strides in challenging circumstances – establishing a formal organization, setting up accounts, and securing a lease from the local school district to remodel and outfit a former elementary school to be a new child care center.
Setting up a new center is a huge and ongoing endeavor. We look forward to working with community advocates to realize their goal and sharing what that process entails for other communities interested in doing the same.
Parents told the Family Conservancy in Kansas City that they were unable to find the time and resources to simply make it through the application process for child care assistance. While the hurdles that many families face – having to navigate work schedules, travel time, and cost to name a few – may seem manageable, they make it difficult to access needed benefits. This is especially true if a caregiver has to make multiple trips and appointments to simply apply. For some, it took up to 6 months to go through the application process, all the while not receiving assistance.
In response to this, The Family Conservancy expanded its Start Young program and hired child care subsidy advocates. Now they have the staff to walk caregivers through the process – assembling necessary information for meetings, avoiding pitfalls, and streamlining the process to save time and money. Start Young also offers supports – both financial and technical – to providers. They have achieved an 89% retention rate among providers who enroll in their program, a remarkable result in a field with high turnover.
Like many rural counties, Hodgeman County is in a precarious position when it comes to child care. With only six providers in the county, any disruption in the child care workforce has a major impact on the community. During the pandemic, one provider shut down and another closed temporarily. There are no options in the county for parents of infants or those who need after-school care. Some parents take their children to nearby larger communities, while others are forced into navigating a patchwork of care. People interested in moving to the community have refused due to lack of care, a serious challenge for any rural county experiencing population loss.
Difficult problems require innovative solutions. Making use of available resources, advocates are looking into starting a center in partnership with the local hospital and long-term care facility. Additionally, the county is interested in working with Child Care Aware of Kansas to assess their needs and potential paths forward.
Even during the height of COVID-19 limitations and closures, Miami County recognized that residents needed child care. Using funds from the first federal COVID relief package, the county commission voted to provide sustainability grants to local providers. These grants were administered in partnership with East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Coalition (ECKAN), and providers were eligible to receive up to $5,000. Additionally, the county provided cleaning supplies for providers. To the uninitiated, that may seem like a small gesture, but it was a boon to child care providers who required enhanced cleaning protocols and scare supplies.
It’s not common for any level of government to provide direct financial support to child care providers, especially with broad parameters on how they could spend it, but Miami County’s decision to do so paid off. The county retained its early childhood workforce, ensuring that children of essential workers did not go without care, and supplemental pay from the county (and state) helped stave off rate increases as providers cared for fewer kids.
ChildStart, the child care resource and referral agency for south central Kansas, is also working to address the issue of unlicensed – illegal – child care. Currently there is no enforcement mechanism for child care licensure other than a criminal complaint. It’s important that anyone taking care of children professionally is licensed, ensuring a safe environment, but it can be a lengthy and confusing process. ChildStart works with unlicensed providers to proactively bring them into compliance, helping them navigate the requirements of starting and operating a child care business. Since starting this work in February, ChildStart has successfully helped six providers get their license.
The child care crisis faced by communities throughout Kansas is ongoing, but it is heartening to talk to so many Kansans dedicated to fixing it. We appreciate everyone who took the time to share information about their work. This list of Kansas cities and counties is not exhaustive nor final. We will continue to work with individual communities to expand access to high-quality child care and provide updates as developments occur.< Back to the news list