Kansas Task Force Recommends Consolidating Early Childhood Development Programs

TOPEKA — Governor Laura Kelly’s task force on early childhood development presented a plan on Monday to enhance the coordination of education and care for pre-kindergarten children in Kansas. The proposal involves consolidating services currently provided by four state entities into either a newly established agency or an existing department.

The Early Childhood Transition Task Force, which was formed by an executive order issued by Governor Kelly, completed a nine-month review of state services for children from birth to age 5. As a result, the task force recommended unifying these programs within the executive branch. They collaborated with the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit organization associated with Duke University based in North Carolina, during this process.

Sam Huenergardt, CEO of AdventHealth System’s Mid-America Region, and Cornelia Stevens, executive director of TOP Early Learning Centers in Wichita, served as co-chairs of the task force. They explained that the goal was to address the duplication and inefficiencies caused by Kansas’ early childhood programs being spread across multiple government agencies. After studying Kansas’ early childhood landscape, gathering input from over 500 stakeholders, and consulting with other states, the task force developed a plan to create a coordinated system for early childhood education and care.

“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,” said the co-chairs. “It’s time we did better.”

A report released by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., ranked Kansas 49th in the country in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of its early childhood systems.

Currently, about 50 child care and early childhood development programs are divided among several state entities, including 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’s Support

Governor Kelly, a Democrat who previously served in the Kansas Legislature for over 15 years, believes that the management of the state’s current system of programs for children needs to be restructured. She agrees that consolidating the programs into a central system would make it easier for families and external stakeholders to navigate. Governor Kelly stated, “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. This is a nonpartisan issue that affects all Kansans, rural and urban alike, and addressing it pays dividends for everyone in the state.”

Kelly emphasized the importance of the early years of childhood in determining academic achievement, healthy development, and social mobility.

Some Republican members of the Kansas Legislature expressed doubt about the effectiveness of establishing a new state agency to improve outcomes for children. In the past, the Legislature rejected Governor Kelly’s proposal to merge the state Department for Children and Families with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

The task force members cautioned that consolidating government services is a complex and labor-intensive process that requires careful planning for a smooth transition.

While many states focus on formal schooling starting at kindergarten, the task force report highlighted that achievement gaps can appear long before children enter the educational system.

In addition to recommending the consolidation of services, the task force also suggested that Kansas should increase state funding for child care and explore the use of economic development funds to incentivize businesses to expand child care offerings. They proposed piloting a child care cost-sharing program similar to programs in Michigan and Kentucky.

A Plan Going Forward

The task force’s report urged Governor Kelly to consider two options: incorporating authority over early childhood programs within an existing state agency or creating a new state agency to oversee these programs. In 2021, Missouri consolidated programs under the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, while Colorado established the Colorado Department of Early Childhood as part of its centralization efforts.

Regarding the implementation timeline, the task force recommended passing a consolidation law during the 2024 legislative session. By September, an implementation team should be established, and the new entity or department should be created by July 2024. The complete realignment of services should be achieved by July 2026.

The task force emphasized the need for a highly qualified, permanent administrator to lead the unified entity. They advised against hiring the transition director responsible for advancing the reform law as the permanent administrator.

The task force further advised that all state programs related to child care services at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund should be realigned under one entity. However, preschool programs administered by local school districts, which are currently housed in the Kansas State Department of Education, should remain there. Additionally, the task force recommended that child protective services, foster care, and adoption services should continue to be under the authority of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, while programs focused on general health outcomes for children should remain under the oversight of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

In order to measure the impact of the unified approach, the task force proposed tracking over 40 benchmark statistics related to children, families, providers, and communities.

Addressing Challenges

Since 2019, Kansas has allocated over $450 million in state and federal funds to increase support for early childhood program providers and improve access to reliable programs.

The task force’s needs assessment revealed that Kansas families with young children face inequitable access to high-quality programs and services. Currently, families often have to navigate through multiple administrative agencies to access the services they need. Additionally, Kansas is experiencing shortages in terms of both the early childhood workforce and facilities across the state.

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

The task force identified several administrative challenges, including overlapping program requirements, a lack of clear decision-making processes, misalignment of workforce policies, suboptimal funding streams, and confusion among the public regarding which agencies are responsible for specific services.

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