Carroll unveils $300 million early childhood education bill

Published 11:16 am Monday, February 19, 2024

By Sarah Michels

Bluegrass Live

Kentucky’s early childhood education centers are nearing a cliff.

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A federal funding cliff, that is. Soon, pandemic-era support for early childhood education will expire, and Kentucky’s centers will be $300 million short.

Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, wants to prevent a free fall. Tuesday, he unveiled the Horizon Act, a $300 million bill that would establish various programs and funds to sustain current centers and encourage the creation of more.

Carroll said that the state devotes about half of its budget to education, amounting to nearly $7 billion each biennium.

“Yet the investments in early childhood education are insignificant because many see early childhood education as nothing more than babysitting,” he said.

What’s in the bill? 

The Horizon Act begins with a rebrand—using the early childhood education term instead of “daycare” or “childcare.”

It establishes the Division of Early Childhood Education, which replaces the Division of Child Care, and the Division of Regulated Early Childhood Education, which replaces the Division of Regulated Childcare.

Early childhood education is just as foundational as K-12 education, Carroll said, which means it should be respected as such.

The Horizon Act also creates a new associate degree program at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System for interdisciplinary early childhood education entrepreneurship.

After graduating, students with this degree should be able to open their own center, alleviating Kentucky’s early childhood education deserts.

The degree would be added to the list of degrees eligible for Work Ready Scholarships, which provides financial assistance to students pursuing highly demanded degrees.

“The childcare industry is perhaps one of the most unique sectors in our economy, because no other sectors can thrive without it,” said Jessie Schook, KCTCS vice president of workforce and economic development.

Required background checks would be covered, to the extent funds are available, under the bill.

There are several other funds included in the Horizon Act.

The Innovations in Early Childhood Education Delivery Program Fund would provide grants up to $100,000 for people or businesses who have ideas to start early childhood education centers with non-traditional delivery models.

The Family Early Childhood Education Provider Fund and the Early Childhood Education Provider Startup Fund would support providers in increasing availability of traditional centers across the Commonwealth.

Eligibility for current Kentucky assistance through the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) would be codified at 85% of state median income.

Finally, the Foundation Fund would allocate a certain base amount of state funding based on the number of children enrolled in a center. The funds would have restricted uses.

Carroll said that based on the current estimation of 128,000 kids needing services, and around $68 million funding, each child would get about $567.

The $300 million price tag would be distributed among these funds, and could fluctuate over time, Carroll said.

What do supporters say?

Jennifer Washburn, owner of an early childhood education (ECE) center in Benton, said that the Horizon Act is an “exceptional starting point to address the needs of a broken system.”

She said that retention is her biggest problem, as her employees outgrow her pay scale.

Without this investment, Washburn said that early education centers would have to choose between cutting teacher pay to fast food and retail worker levels, raise tuition rates for already burdened parents or close their doors.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 65% of two-parent families with children, both parents were employed.

Dr. Sarah Vanover of Kentucky Youth Advocates cited this statistic as one reason why access to early childhood education is critical to Kentucky’s workforce.

She added that when people can work, they have greater access to healthy food, stable housing, reliable transportation and health care, which are all key to a child’s development.

“Kentucky’s youngest children are our next workforce, and learning begins at birth, not at age five,” Vanover said.

“We have to identify the fact that when children are born, they’re already learning. They are already growing and so we need to provide them the education and the support that they need at that age to begin this journey.”

Dr. Charles Aull, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce executive director of the center for policy and research, hammered the point home.

Kentucky’s workforce participation rate in 2023 was 57%, one of the lowest in the nation.

According to Census Bureau data,  nearly 63,000 nonworking Kentuckians said that caring for children not in school or daycare was their main reason for not working in 2023.

These trends are not sustainable and will hold back the state’s economy, Aull said.

“A strong early childhood ecosystem will remove barriers to work and support workforce participation among adults,” Aull said. “And what this means for all of us here is this means more working parents, more self sufficiency, more taxpayers, more jobs filled and a stronger economy.”