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TOPEKA — Haven school district administrator Megan Hett knew surveys indicated Reno County was short 1,600 child care slots and it was unlikely a private business would parachute in to help a small public school district fill the gap for children and their families.
Evidence that kids who attended preschool did better academically that those that didn’t provided incentive to get creative.
“The differences were vast,” said Hett, director of learning services for the 750-student district. “In reading and math, we were seeing a big difference in students who were at benchmarks and those who weren’t coming into kindergarten.”
She said the district opened two child care centers in a collaborative effort with the cities of Haven and Yoder. The preschool unit was located in Yoder to provide 40 slots for a combined preschool and after-school program. The all-day setup was available during the academic year and the summer months. Haven, six miles down Kansas 96, became home to an infant and toddler facility with 16 slots. There’s a plan to add 10 more slots. The operation included transportation services.
“We’re excited to offer these resources to our community,” Hett said.
It was the kind of community-based answer to Kansas’ epidemic shortage of affordable, quality child care that caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican. He hosted a roundtable discussion by Zoom with leaders of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, Child Care Aware of Kansas and several local entities working on the issue.
“What this reminds me of is people solve problems. The federal government doesn’t solve problems,” Marshall said. “What solution might work in Great Bend, Kansas, may not work in Kansas City, Kansas, may not work in Wichita, Kansas, or Topeka, Kansas.”
The Children’s Cabinet
Melissa Rooker serves as executive director of the Children’s Cabinet, which was created by the Legislature in 1999 to coordinate expenditure of the state’s annual payment under the national tobacco settlement. The cash has been devoted to early childhood care and education. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted infusion of supplemental federal aid that has been dedicated to the crisis in delivery of care for children.
Grant applications will be accepted by the state until Dec. 18 for a slice of $92 million, including earmarks for support for construction and renovation of child care facilities.
“We are really pleased to see communities large and small apply for the grants,” Rooker said. “We have really enjoyed seeing the variety of communities come together, not just the traditional folks around the table, but business leaders, government officials and the world of education, the world of philanthropy and, of course, child care providers.”
She said decisions about how to meet the shortage best emerged at the community level. There were state-level steps to be taken, she said, including implementation of a comprehensive set of proposed rule and regulation changes pending before the attorney general and eventually open to public comment.
Another problem in Kansas has been conflict between local zoning and state regulation on child care facilities, Rooker said.
“We want quality, but we don’t want unnecessary regulation as well,” Marshall said.
A pilot project
Tanya Koehn, interim executive director of nonprofit Child Care Aware of Kansas, said the organization was engaged in a pilot project with 56 child care providers in 14 counties that has enrolled 40 infants in care. The objective is to provide a $15 per hour subsidy if a facility accepted one additional infant.
“We know this is a hard age to get into child care,” she said. “So, our pilot is called Baby Steps.”
Edward Herrman, chief executive officer of Hays Medical Center, said a local task force indicated Hays had a shortage of 600 slots for children. A part of that was among employees of Hays Med, which has a staff of about 1,500. In response, the hospital’s foundation supported construction of a $1.3 million facility.
The decision was made to outsource management of the center, which would have a capacity of 77. It can only handle nine infants, Herrman said, which has created a waiting list for families trying to secure convenient care for their babies.
“That right there is probably the biggest challenge — babies,” Herrman said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Julie Lyon, executive director of Kiowa County Economic Development. The challenges of housing, workforce development and child care were felt statewide, she said, but a fix in a rural Kansas county of less than 2,500 people was more elusive, she said.
She said Kiowa County’s solution involved opening two licensed child care facilities capable of serving 12 children each. A subsidy of approximately $1,000 per child was available to set up turn-key centers leased by the county agency and subleased to care providers.
“People ask me: ‘How do we help rural America survive?’” Marshall said. “This is one of the challenges we have to overcome.”