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Kansas task force urges consolidation of state’s early childhood development programs

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Kansas task force urges consolidation of state’s early childhood development programs

Dec 11, 2023 | 1:01 pm ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Kansas task force urges consolidation of state’s early childhood development programs
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A task force appointed created by executive order by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly outlined a strategy for consolidating 50 early childhood programs housed in four state agencies within a single, unified Cabinet agency. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly’s task force on early childhood development outlined Monday a plan for improving coordination of the education and care of pre-kindergarten kids by consolidating services scattered among four state entities into a newly created agency or within an existing department.

The Early Childhood Transition Task Force authorized by the first executive order issued in Kelly’s second term as governor prompted a review of state services for children from birth to 5 and resulted in the recommendation to unify programs within the executive branch. The task force collaborated during the nine-month project with the Hunt Institute, a North Carolina nonprofit associated with Duke University.

Task force co-chairs Sam Huenergardt, CEO of AdventHealth System’s Mid-America Region, and Cornelia Stevens, executive director of TOP Early Learning Centers in Wichita, said state agency officials, private-sector advocates and state legislators on the task force studied Kansas’ early childhood landscape, listened to more than 500 stakeholders and consulted with other states to develop the plan for adopting a coordinated system.

“As in most states,” the co-chairs said, “Kansas’ early childhood programs are spread across multiple government agencies, creating duplication and inefficiencies that force Kansas families to navigate a needlessly complex bureaucratic maze in order to access time sensitive services. It’s time we did better.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center, an independent organization in Washington, D.C., issued a report this year ranking Kansas 49th in the nation in terms of efficiency and effectiveness of early childhood systems.

About four dozen child care and early childhood development programs have been scattered among the Kansas Department for Children and Families, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas State Department of Education and the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund.

 

Kelly on board

Kelly, a Democrat who served more than 15 years in the GOP-led Legislature, said Kansas should reshape management of the state’s overly complex network of programs for children. The state would benefit from centralizing a system difficult for families and external stakeholders to navigate, Kelly said.

“Streamlining the administration of these programs and reducing the red tape around accessing them will save money and make it easier for families and providers to navigate the system,” Kelly said. “This is a nonpartisan issue that affects all Kansans, rural and urban alike, and addressing it pays dividends for everyone in the state.”

Kelly said the earliest years of childhood were crucial to the trajectory of academic achievement, healthy development and social mobility.

After formation of the task force, Republican members of the Kansas Legislature expressed skepticism that establishing a new state agency would do much to help children excel. In the past, the Legislature rejected Kelly’s recommendation to merge the state Department for Children and Families with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

Task force members warned consolidation of governmental services was a complex and labor intensive process that required thoughtful transition planning.

Many states identified the start of formal schooling at kindergarten, but the task force report said achievement gaps could manifest long before children reached schoolhouse doors.

In addition, the task force went beyond scope of their directive to suggest Kansas ought to increase state aid for child care and make use of economic development funds to encourage businesses to expand child care services. Members said Kansas should explore piloting a child care cost-sharing program similar to Michigan’s Tri-Share Program or Kentucky’s Employee Child Care Assistance Partnership Program.

 

A blueprint

The report of the task force urged Kelly to consider the options of placing authority over Kansas early childhood programs within an existing state agency or a newly created state agency. In 2021, Missouri consolidated programs in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Colorado advanced its centralization initiative by creating the Colorado Department of Early Childhood.

In terms of an implementation timeline, the task force suggested adoption of a consolidation law during the 2024 legislative session,  creation of an implementation team by September, establishment of the new entity or department by July 2024 and completion of the realignment by July 2026.

The unified entity needed to be led by a “highly qualified, permanent” administrator who reported directly to the governor, the task force said. The transition director chosen to advance the reform law adopted by the Legislature and governor shouldn’t be hired as permanent administrator, the report said.

The task force said all state programs relating to child care services at KDCF, KDHE and the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund should be realigned under one entity.

Preschool programs housed in the Kansas State Department of Education ought to remain there because many were administered by local school districts, the task force said. KDCF should retain authority of child protective services, foster care and adoption services. Likewise, the task force said, KDHE would maintain oversight of programs focused on general health outcomes of children.

Task force members recommended the new entity track more than 40 benchmark statistics to determine whether the unified approach had a positive influence on children, families, providers and communities.

 

Significant challenges

Since 2019, Kansas invested more than $450 million in state and federal funds to increase support for providers of early childhood programs and broaden access to reliable programs.

The task force’s needs assessment indicated Kansas families with young children experienced inequitable access to high-quality programs and services. Families in Kansas must adopt a connect-the-dots approach to navigating services across administrative agencies. Kansas was experiencing both a workforce and facility shortage across the state in terms of early childhood programs, the task force said.

“Early childhood providers and stakeholders share a desire for collaboration and cooperation, but these efforts are often disconnected and uncoordinated,” the report said.

The task force identified administrative shortcomings that included overlapping program requirements for similar services to the same populations, lack of clear lines of decision making, lack of alignment of workforce policy, funding streams not optimized toward common goals and public confusion over which agencies were responsible for specific services.