Education

A group of state lawmakers has begun exploring a possible revamp of Kentucky’s approach to early childhood education.  

In a first meeting last week, experts gave lawmakers the lay of the land on the complex patchwork of options for childcare and education for children under age five.

An advocate described a limited early childhood education landscape in which both families and childcare providers struggle with costs. That’s keeping many parents, especially women, from  working outside the home.

“It’s overwhelming to families,” Kentucky Youth Advocates Policy and Research Director Sarah Vanover told lawmakers. “Often this falls on the mother: Mom has to decide ‘Do I stay in the workforce or do I leave the workforce because the costs of childcare are so high?’”

Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, proposed universal pre-K for all Kentucky four-year-olds in his 2022 budget, at a cost of $172 million a year. The GOP-led General Assembly declined to include the initiative in their final budget, instead creating the early childhood education task force, which is scheduled to meet monthly through November.

Carroll said the task force will explore the idea of universal pre-K, though his comments suggested there may not be an appetite to pursue the policy.

“I don’t think there’s any secret that many of us support a model where it’s more all of the above approach as we move forward with this,” he said. “But I know there are those that are pushing the public universal pre-K, so I think it’s only prudent that we do take a look at that.”

Task force co-chair Rep. Samara Heavrin said greater access to childcare could help address the worker shortage Kentucky has been experiencing since the pandemic began.

“I start looking at why we can’t get people back to work, and it’s not just because of a stimulus check or unemployment [checks]—there are other things,” the Leitchfield Republican said. “I think childcare is a huge barrier.”

While childcare costs are high for families, Vanover said, the fees often aren’t enough for childcare centers to provide living wages for their staff, let alone health insurance and other benefits. 

The salary for an early childhood teacher in Kentucky ranges from just $15,685 a year to $31,000 a year, with a median income of $22,000 a year. Vanover said those low wages are driving a staffing crisis.

“Childcare wages cannot compete with hospitality and retail,” she said. “When you only make $10 an hour, but Arby’s is starting off at $16 an hour, for most families it’s not a choice where they’re going to go and work.”

Most childcare providers are small businesses with tight margins that rely on tuition to cover the costs of staffing, rent and other costs, Vanover said. She said a significant one-time expense such as roof repair can force a childcare center to shut its doors, further limiting the slots in a state where many “childcare deserts” already exist.

Many childcare centers already receive some form of public funding, often through federal programs, such as the Child Care Assistance Program, CCAP, which Vanover said supports 13% to 15% of Kentucky families by covering part or all of their childcare costs. Most of the funding for CCAP comes from federal grants of about $95 million a year. The state chips in an additional $20 million a year.

Task force co-chair Sen. Danny Carroll, a Benton Republican who owns a childcare center, suggested it’s not enough. 

“It simply doesn’t work,” Carroll said. “The state’s going to have to supplement … childcare in the commonwealth.” 

He pointed to other states, which provide extra funding to centers to help them hire and pay for teachers with certifications and training.

The task force’s next meeting is July 26, at 1 p.m.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.