Jennifer Washburn, director and owner of iKids Childhood Enrichment Center in Benton, sports a shirt touting child care’s importance, Nov. 28, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)
FRANKFORT — In a year when Kentucky’s child care providers are looking to the legislature for a financial lifeline, a Senate committee heard an overview Tuesday of what its chairman called “one of the most pressing issues” facing the General Assembly .
Several members of the Senate Families and Children Committee, including chairman Danny Carroll, said they are committed to finding solutions to the challenges facing the state’s child care industry.
With federal COVID-era assistance coming to an end, Kentucky’s child care providers are hoping the legislature will subsidize the industry to avoid closures, pay cuts and increased tuition for parents, the Lantern previously reported.
Gov. Andy Beshear, in a December budget proposal, said he wants to spend $141 million over the next two years on the industry. But advocates said this figure falls short of what is needed.
Beshear’s desire to spend $172 million to begin funding universal preschool for Kentucky 4-year-olds also concerns industry experts. That’s because child care centers rely on children of that age to make profits, as the teacher-to- student ratios can be larger than they can be with babies.
Sarah Vanover, a policy and research director for Kentucky Youth Advocates, told the committee that “universal pre-k is a great option” but “it is a long-term goal.”
“Right now the priority is maintaining child care, and not waiting for child care to collapse,” she said.
Carroll, R-Benton, president and CEO of Easter Seals West Kentucky, whose programs include a child care center, seemed to agree, urging caution on Beshear’s proposals for universal preschool while also stressing the value of early childhood education.
Carroll said a disadvantage of Beshear’s plan for 4-year-olds is that it would be tied to the traditional school schedule and unable to meet the needs of many families.
Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, said “public schools are not currently in a position to take on additional responsibilities” by adding pre-kindergarten instruction.
Meredith also said: “Certainly this matter has our attention. … I think we’ll try our best to come up with some resolution. But I think we have to understand that this is not going to be a one-year, two-year proposition — that we have to build this infrastructure.”
Carroll said Kentucky has a “great foundation” in child care, but it’s “time for the state to step up and to make the investment that we need” to sustain it in the future. He stressed that access to child care is critical to workforce participation.
“Preschool, early childhood education, it’s about child care, but it’s about education. It’s about workforce. The importance of this is no less — and, I would argue, that it’s greater — than what it is for primary, secondary, post secondary.”
He added: “Until we start looking at early childhood education for what it is: education and part of our system, and we start funding it in that manner, we’re not going to make any progress.”
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