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Lawmakers pitched on economic, educational value of increasing state support for child care

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Lawmakers pitched on economic, educational value of increasing state support for child care

Feb 20, 2024 | 5:46 pm ET
By Sarah Ladd
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Lawmakers pitched on economic, educational value of increasing state support for child care
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Kathy Donelan, owner of Aunt Kathy's Child Care and Preschool in Northern Kentucky, testified in favor of more state support for child care providers. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

FRANKFORT — Kathy Donelan doesn’t like the options facing her Northern Kentucky child care and preschool center if the state doesn’t put money into the child care industry this session. 

“I could close,” Donelan told members of the Senate Families and Children Committee Tuesday as she testified in support of the Horizons Act, a $300 million, two-year proposal to support and expand early childhood education in Kentucky. 

She later told the Lantern: “I don’t want to look at (closing) as a possibility” but she’s already raised tuition 15% recently and may have to raise it again. 

The committee only discussed the bill. Sponsor Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, who unveiled the plan last week, told reporters it may come before the committee again for a vote next week and that “the support for this is growing every day.”  

He has also filed a budget request outlining how the $150 million per year would be spent, which will go through the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

As the Lantern has reported, federal COVID-19 dollars are running out, leaving centers to cut pay for their workers, raise tuition for parents and even close. Kentucky could lose more than a fifth of its child care providers if the state doesn’t help.

Donelan and others wait anxiously for help. 

“If I did close, that would impact 80 families,” Donelan told senators. “And that would be people leaving the workforce.” 

The 25 teachers she employs would be out of work, she said, and more than 120 children — including 10 infants, 27 toddlers and 84 preschoolers — would lose access to safe and quality early education. 

“I believe that investing in early childhood industry is investing in the future and the present workforce of Kentucky,” Donelan said. “We are the brain builders teaching the children durable skills to use throughout their life.” 

Imploring his colleagues to “seize the day,” Caroll said people need to reframe how they think of the services that have been called “day care” and “child care” in the past. 

“It’s not child care, it’s not day care, it’s education,” he said. Because most brain development happens before a child reaches the age of 5, Carroll said, Kentucky must think of education as “not K through 12, but birth through 12.” 

“Child care, early childhood education, it’s always looked at as an afterthought,” he said. “We think about what it is, that it’s just a service that we have so our parents can go to work, or they can go run errands … or whatever. And we have done our children a great disservice by taking this approach, by the terms ‘child care,’ ‘day care.’”

Carroll is a West Kentucky Republican who serves as president and CEO of Easter Seals West Kentucky, whose programs include a child care center. 

Charles Aull, executive director of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Center for Policy and Research, pointed to the state’s aging population and lower birth rates and how they will make it “harder and harder to find working age people and bring those into the labor market.” 

Carroll’s legislation, Aull said, “would ensure that more parents can access and afford quality early childhood services, which in turn would help us mitigate our unsustainable workforce trends.” 

Andrew McNeill, the president of the policy nonprofit Kentucky Forum for Rights, Economics and Education, told lawmakers he finds the $300 million price tag on Carroll’s bill to be a “major concern.” 

“It is unclear to me exactly what the requirement is for educational content to be provided in these centers,” he said. He added: “These are businesses. It is not the taxpayer’s responsibility to ensure they achieve and remain profitable.”  

McNeill also worries about sustainability, he said. “What we’re talking about here is subsidizing Kentucky’s child care industry,” he told lawmakers. “Subsidies result in higher prices over the long term. The cost of health care and higher education are informative. If policymakers are concerned about the cost of child care for families, providing permanent subsidies is the last thing that should be under consideration.” 

In response, Carroll said centers are already held accountable for educational standards through regulations. And because ratios of children per teacher are limited for safety reasons, the model makes it impossible to add more students and thus make more money. 

“No one wants funding from the state,” Carroll said. “Everybody that starts their own business … they want to be able to succeed, sustain and grow. The model does not foster that. And again, this is not an investment in propping up an industry. This is an investment in the education of our youngest students.” 

Carroll later reiterated this point to reporters. “I’m fiscally conservative,” he said. “We know we could go back into recession at any time. And we have to be sensitive to that.”

But when he looks at every aspect of the early childhood education space, “it’s worth the investment,” he said. “And it’s not a handout, it’s an investment.”