As child care challenges continue to affect Kansas families, a task force is moving forward with the governor’s proposed solution: a new government agency.
Gov. Laura Kelly established the Kansas Early Childhood Transition Task Force in January, signing the executive order while holding her baby granddaughter at a Statehouse news conference.
The committee is tasked with drafting a report by next legislative session, with an apparent end goal of directing lawmakers on the details of how to establish a new cabinet-level position focused on early childhood development. Such an agency would fulfill a Kelly campaign promise, unifying the efforts spread across other departments with a goal of expanding the quality, quantity and affordability of child care.
More:Kansas governor creates task force for cabinet-level child care office via executive order
Kansas child care is split across three state agencies
Kansas has child care and early childhood education programs split across three separate state agencies: Kansas Department for Children and Families, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the Kansas Department of Education, which also houses the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund.
Task force draft documents inventory the various programs across the agencies.
The Education Department houses eight programs, such as Kansas Parents as Teachers. The Children’s Cabinet adds 12 programs, such as Workforce Registry and Early Childhood Block Grants.
DCF has nine programs, such as Child Care Assistance and Head Start. KDHE has 21, including Child Care Licensing and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Supporters of merging and consolidating the separate offices say it will eliminate administrative inefficiencies and the bureaucratic maze of services to Kansans.
Fulfilling a campaign promise for Gov. Laura Kelly
Materials from Kelly’s reelection campaign proposed centralizing all child care programs and responsibilities under a secretary of early childhood development tasked with streamlining the processes.
The position would focus on children ages newborn to 5 years old while working to increase the quantity and quality of affordable child care while coordinating with the K-12 education system on early learning opportunities.
“While each of these entities works diligently to provide quality services, having services segregated into silos creates inefficiencies, redundancies, service gaps and confusion for providers and families alike,” Kelly said in January.
More:Child care has — and will continue to be — a priority of the Kelly administration
Task force comes amid failed legislative effort
The task force’s work continues after a failed legislative push overhaul the child care regulatory system.
The efforts was led by two Republican senators who are parents of young children, but it came relatively late in the legislative session, prompting an expedited process in the House with limited opportunity for public input. Supporters said Kansans couldn’t afford to wait, while opponents said the legislative effort was not inclusive of all stakeholders.
Supporters said regulatory reform was needed, blaming burdensome bureaucratic red tape for child care challenges, while opponents said the regulations were largely necessary for safety and pointed the finger at low pay for child care workers.
House Bill 2344 passed, but Kelly vetoed it, and the House failed to override by three votes.
More:‘We can’t wait’ — Kansas lawmakers narrowly advance overhaul of child care regulations
Early childhood development in Kansas has room to improve
Sam Huenergardt, task force co-chair, said Kansas has a complicated system that makes it challenging for Kansans to access resources.
“Early childhood governance may be on its surface a little dry, maybe a little bureaucratic,” Huenergardt said. “But the truth is that the changes this group will recommend will have a very direct impact on the children and families of Kansans and hold the potential to significantly change their lives for the better.”
This year, the Bipartisan Policy Center ranked Kansas 49th in the country on early childhood education after the state previously ranked 48th in 2018.
Meanwhile, it praised Colorado and Missouri for consolidating and restructuring services. Colorado improved from 27th to 13th and Missouri from 45th to 40th.
“Reducing administrative burdens, eliminating duplication, and easing families’ entry into multiple programs will increase access for those that need early care and education services the most,” the report concluded. “State policymakers should focus efforts on the governance of (early childhood education) systems to promote transparency and accessibility for families, while maintaining processes that uphold accountability.”
Dan Wuori, of The Hunt Institute, is helping facilitate the task force’s work. He said part of its mission is to learn from mistakes of other states as they consolidated agencies.
Tuesday’s meeting featured conversations with Missouri and Colorado government officials.
Pam Thomas, who leads the Office of Childhood at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Kansas should have a vision of creating a strong system, not simply rehousing a collection of government benefit programs.
“We need to consolidate those, yes, we need to be more efficient, yes, but we need to do it in a way that creates a system,” she said.
Missouri’s was established through executive order with later legislation to clean up statutory references. Kelly has previously said she would prefer to work with legislators on such a change.
The Colorado Department of Early Childhood was created through legislative action.
M. Michael Cooke, the early childhood transition director in the Colorado governor’s office, advised against implementing a transition through a confusing, massive bill like Colorado’s, which was 550 pages.
More:Kansas legislator went 6 months unable to find child care. Here’s what she did about it.
Could people lose their jobs in agency mergers?
Cooke such a major transition with organizational and structural changes lead to angst among workers over what it means for their jobs.
“We worked really hard to make it very clear to all staff that they are not only welcome, but needed and valued and wanted in this new department and that there would be no terminations, no layoffs associated with this transition,” she said. “What they would see potentially is that they might be seated with a different group or reporting to a different supervisor, but nothing about their status or their pay would change.”
Thomas said that Missouri similarly kept pay and benefits the same for employees who were moved from one agency to another. Meanwhile, the new office continued to have significant structural changes after its formation as it figured out the organizational chart.
Budgeting for enough workers is critical
Cooke said she “can’t emphasize enough” the importance of “ensuring adequate budgeting.” The staffing and funding levels in the initial budget for the new state department were inadequate, she said, “making our ability to hire the people we needed in key positions difficult.”
Thomas said her office also didn’t get enough staff positions in its initial budget.
Cooke said attrition and eliminating vacant positions can lead to administrative savings. Thomas said there was high turnover during the transition from people who chose to retire instead of learning a new department.
The new departments also needed administrative help, such as with human resources, finance and contract procurement as their previous support staff in the old agencies were not part of the transitions.
“That was absolutely necessarily critical because we could not do it,” Cooke said. “And it wasn’t just a matter of not having the staffing, it was not having a connection to statewide technology systems.”