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Opinion – Sarah Vanover: Horizons Act — Senate Bill 203 — would give early childhood education stability

As Kentucky approaches the end of the federal fiscal year in September 2024, a potential child care crisis is looming for the entire state. Child care providers have already stopped receiving the sustainability payments that were allowing centers and family child care homes to increase staff wages while still paying their fixed expenses. With the sustainability payments over, child care programs are making tough decisions on whether to reduce wages, increase tuition, or close their doors.
Senator Danny Carroll is championing Senate Bill 203, referred to as the Horizons Act, which would give early childhood education programs the stability to stay open and serve more children in their communities. The comprehensive nature of this bill would allow for early childhood education programs to keep their doors open, while encouraging new programs to open all over the state, particularly in child care deserts.

Here are the highlights of the programs included in the bill:

• Adds early childhood education to the Work Ready Scholarship list. This program allows for students entering high-demand fields to receive a scholarship to encourage more participation in the major and bring more professionals to the career track. In the past, this program has been reserved for STEM-based careers; however, there is growing demand for trained early childhood educators in the Commonwealth.

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• Adds an Interdisciplinary Early Childhood Education Entrepreneurship AA degree to the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. There is currently an early childhood education major at KCTCS, but this new major would include more business and management training that would prepare candidates not only to teach young children, but also to management and early childhood education programs.

• Changes the name of the Division of Child Care to the Division of Early Childhood Education. Likewise, the Division of Regulated Child Care (inside the Office of the Inspector General) would also be changed to the Division of Regulated Early Childhood Education. The objectives of these offices would not change, but the title would move towards a focus on the educational role that centers and family child care homes play.

• Creates the Innovations in Early Childhood Education Delivery Fund. This fund would focus on providing start-up funding for new early childhood education programs that take a different approach to supporting children and families. This may be employee-based early education, school systems creating early education programs for their staff members’ children, or early childhood education being offered during non-traditional hours like nights and weekends.  The funding would be a match to help set-up the new program and prepare it to open.

• Continues the start-up funding for family child care homes and early childhood education centers throughout the state. A match would still be required for the center start-up grants, but the amount of the match would be less if the center focused on supporting children with disabilities or opened in a child-care desert.

• Establishes the Foundations for Early Learning Fund. This fund would be an annual supplemental payment issued to early childhood education centers and family child care homes based on the program’s enrollment numbers.  Enrollment would be documented through the management software made available through the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The Foundation Fund would mimic a per child payment similar to the public school system’s SEEK payments. The funding would be allocated only for staff wages or fixed expenses, such as mortgage/rent, utilities, or insurance.

• Permanently establishes the positive changes to the Child Care Assistance Program that have been implemented since 2020. This would include establishing a family’s eligibility for CCAP at 85% of the State Median Income and establishing the reimbursement rate at the 80% percentile, meaning that CCAP would cover the total cost of care for 80% of the early education programs in the state. The bill would also establish a transition program for families that graduate out of the CCAP program due to an income increase, to avoid having the families face an abrupt cliff in receiving supports.

• Permanently establishes the CCAP income exclusion for child care providers in statute. This program allows all staff members at an early childhood education program (center or home-based) to qualify for the CCAP program for their children if they work at least 20-hours per week in a licensed or certified program. Kentucky was the first state in the U.S. to implement this program, and it has been a huge workforce support for child care providers that could make a higher wage in other fields. Now, our early childhood educators can work in the same program (but not in the same classroom) as their own children and not worry about the large cost of child care.
• Ensures the Cabinet for Health and Family Services continues to pay for background checks for early childhood educators in licensed centers and certified homes. The federal government implemented an extensive background check program in 2018. Federal funds have allowed the Cabinet to cover the costs of the background checks for child care providers to date, but this could be an obstacle in the future if the cost became the responsibility of the early childhood education programs.

The reality is that a package this size will be expensive. The bill itself does not have a fiscal note, but the accompanying budget request is approximately $150 million per year of the state’s biennial budget. Although Kentucky has not made this level of investment in early childhood education in the past, it will be essential in order for the Commonwealth to see successful early education programs in every community that can support working families and help young children be prepared to start kindergarten.

Representative Samara Heavrin’s House Bill 561 would also support the stability of the child care infrastructure by permanently establishing the Employee Child Care Assistance Partnership (ECCAP) and creating the Certified Child Care Community Designation Program to boost access to family child care homes. Many Kentucky cities have had zoning laws that prohibit family child care homes and the growth of free-standing child care centers. This bill would encourage communities to take a specific look at zoning laws to see if they can be changed to increase child care access.

Every community needs a strong child care infrastructure to support working families and prepare the next generation’s workforce.  Contact your local legislators to urge them to support the Horizons Act (Senate Bill 203) and House Bill 561!

Sarah Vanover is director of policy and research at Kentucky Youth Advocates. This commentary first appeared on the KYA website. Senate Bill 203 is currently making its way through the committee process.

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