12 January 2024 | Education Early Learning

Streamlining the Child Care and Early Learning System

Recommendations from the Early Childhood Transition Task Force

Emily Barnes | January 12, 2024

Governor Kelly commissioned the Early Childhood Transition Task Force in January 2023 to assess the child care and early learning system and create a blueprint to join the services into a unified early childhood entity. In December 2023, the Task Force released its report with recommendations to address Kansas’ needs. These recommendations should guide lawmakers, stakeholders, and advocates toward supporting a more efficient system that streamlines early childhood services for the benefit of families and providers.

Although we summarize the recommendations below, you can read the full report here.

The Need

Healthy brain development during the first five years of a child’s life is crucial to setting kids on their path toward success in school and throughout life. Enriched learning environments offer children the time and space to develop skills and communication, leading to greater learning and improved health outcomes. These environments often reduce the occurrence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which contribute toward toxic stress in children and are connected to behavioral challenges, increased needs for special education, and remedial supports as children grow.

In Kansas, 72% of households depend upon multiple incomes to make ends meet, yet more than 49% of residents live in a child care desert. Despite a workforce of family child care providers, child care centers, Head Start programs, and public preschools, many parents must rely on family, friends, and neighbors for child care. When parents can even find a child care opening, tuition rates often far exceed 7% of the household budget, which is the recommended cap experts say families should pay for child care.

Similarly, the child care workforce faces barriers to providing the quality care kids need to thrive. In a career path with little recognition and low wages, many early educators find themselves working long hours, often with no paid time off or benefits like health insurance. And if a child care provider has children of their own, they are likely to struggle to find or afford adequate care for their children.

High-quality care is expensive to provide, and without the ability to request tuition rates that match the financial demands of providing care, many programs struggle to make ends meet so they can continue operating.

For years, providers and families have struggled to get the support they need from the state because services are spread out across multiple agencies. This inefficiency affects the number of child care workers entering the field and parents’ ability to pay for care. It’s time that Kansas re-organizes its child care and early learning system so Kansans can more easily navigate the system.

What Did the Task Force Do?

The Task Force examined the four state agencies that oversee child care and early programs in Kansas — the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE), the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, and the Department for Children and Families (DCF)— and the programs housed within each. It was tasked with considering how other states are addressing their child care needs and what the Task Force recommends as the best path forward for Kansas.

In June 2023, the Task Force held a community engagement tour in nine cities around the state and a virtual meeting. During the community tour, the Task Force solicited feedback about the challenges and needs that communities face and the programs or services that work well. It also inquired how efficiently the state provides support and implements programs.

Many participants detailed how Kansas families and child care providers currently must use a fragmented system that doesn’t operate effectively. Families and providers need a system that clearly walks them through the steps to applying for assistance or becoming licensed to provide care. But parents are responsible to independently navigate systems they don’t fully understand and have no clear starting point; providers face equal barriers, which often compounds the challenges of providing care to Kansas kids.

Task Force Recommendations

The Task Force recommended several solutions on how to move all oversight and operations of Kansas child care and early learning programs within a unified early childhood entity. Solutions were categorized into three categories: transition logistics, programmatic movements, and metrics and data.

This three-pronged approach toward centralizing child care and early learning services into a unified early childhood entity should help make the process smooth and efficient for the state, families, and providers. Once the transition has been completed, more work should be underway to ensure the entity is having the intended positive impact.

Next Steps

Drawing from the Early Childhood Transition Task Force’s recommendations, Governor Kelly recommended the creation of the Office of Early Childhood to focus on the first five years of a child’s life and centralize the work being done in the early childhood care and education system.

What happens next is up to the Legislature. Without legislation either creating a new agency or elevating a current office to a cabinet-level agency (plus allocating the necessary funding to make it possible), a unified early childhood entity won’t happen.

The earliest years of a child’s life should receive significant focus from the state, much like our K-12 public school system. We are hopeful that lawmakers will work with the Governor to implement a solution so that all Kansas families and providers can benefit.

What This Means for Kansas

How would co-locating programs work in reality? Should the state create a single agency for this purpose? Or would it be possible to find a way to assist agencies in working together more seamlessly?

Families and providers know firsthand the struggles of bouncing between four agencies to get what they need to receive or provide care. Without a clear path to receive state support, parents and providers often don’t know who to contact. Frequently, families also need services that seem similar, yet are housed in different entities.

Placing all child care and early learning programs and procedures into a unified early childhood entity would allow for greater efficiency and less administrative hurdles for Kansans to jump through.

For instance, one issue many providers face is compliance with overlapping requirements between KDHE regulations, DCF requirements, and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) rules. Providers struggle when a training course offered by a CACFP sponsor cannot count toward their KDHE training hours for their license renewal. This may be the opportunity to actively discuss the ways we adjust the system to reduce bottlenecks and redundancies, which leads to an easier outcome for the provider and entrepreneurs starting child care businesses.

A better system for providers should correlate to more child care openings to meet the demand of working parents. Too many eligible children are not using the child care assistance program, which helps parents pay for child care. A unified early childhood entity with a streamlined system should increase the number of providers enrolled in the program, giving parents more options for affordable care.

The state continues to face child care challenges and has much work ahead to ensure every Kansas kid has high-quality early learning opportunities. However, we also know that Kansas has passionate and dedicated people working to improve the system. Acting on the recommendations from the Early Childhood Transition Task Force is the next step to make Kansas the best place for children to grow and thrive in their earliest years.

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