A national expert on the federal government’s plan for reforming its support for child care says Kansas has a lot to be concerned about.
“When you look at Kansas, you see that you’ve lost lots of children who were receiving child care assistance and that you’re paying very low rates to child care providers who serve families getting assistance,” said Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. “You don’t want that, and you don’t want that to be cut any further.”
Blank addressed a forum Monday in Topeka on policy issues tied to the federal government’s pending rollout of its Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which generates about $42.2 million annually in federal funds for early childhood development and child care assistance programs in Kansas.
The forum was a project of Kansas Action for Children, an organization that advocates for children and families. About 40 people — a mix of child care providers, education officials and early childhood development instructors — attended the four-hour session.
Blank and Stephanie Schmit, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy based in Washington, D.C., asked the group to realize that while many of the reforms built into the federal reauthorization are meant to improve quality and expand access to services, the measure does not guarantee additional funding.
So the challenge that child advocates and state officials now face, they said, is to find a way to finance the mandated improvements without cutting state-funded support for child care services.
Kansas child advocates, Blank said, should resist “being embarrassed” about asking lawmakers for additional funding.
It’s not yet clear how much the mandates are likely to cost.
Most of the mandates are expected to focus on tightening background checks for child care providers, exposing providers to additional on-site inspections, ensuring low-income families’ access to child care assistance and increasing pay for providers.
Some of the changes may mean that lawmakers will have to alter provisions in a recently enacted welfare reform law.
In early August, Kansas Department for Children and Families officials shelved enforcement of a provision that would have blocked families on public assistance from using their state-issued debit cards to withdraw more than $25 a day from an ATM.
The new law, called the Hope Act, also reduced low-income families’ access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from 48 months to 36 months.
In Kansas, the numbers of children in families on TANF have fallen significantly in recent years from roughly 13,600 children per month in 2011 to 5,000 per month in 2015.
The number of families receiving child care assistance also has declined, said Amanda Gress, a policy analyst with Kansas Action for Children, going from 21,200 in 2008 to 12,800 in 2014.
Gress also noted that state-sanctioned surveys have found that DCF’s child care assistance program pays providers between 35 percent and 40 percent of what families not on public assistance pay.
After the federal reauthorization takes effect, the state will be expected pay close 75 percent of the market rate.
In Kansas, families are eligible for child care assistance if their incomes fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $3,100 a month for a parent with two young children.
Payments vary depending on the number of children and their ages. Most parents have co-pays.
Congress agreed to both reauthorize and reform the grant program in 2014, directing states to file new plans by June 2015. The deadline was later pushed back to March 2016 due to delays in crafting rules and regulations that define what states will and will not be allowed to do.
Kansas Action for Children’s chief executive, Shannon Cotsoradis, said Monday’s forum was meant to set the stage for a discussion in both the public and legislative arenas on how the state will respond to the reauthorization act.
“There is no indication at this point that we can count on additional federal dollars coming in,” Cotsoradis said. “That’s not to say they won’t be there, but there’s no guarantee. So the state needs to devise a plan that recognizes that those dollars may not be forthcoming.”
Last week, Cotsoradis let it be known that a months-long efforts to include DCF officials in the discussion had been unsuccessful.
Though they were invited, no one from DCF or the Kansas Department of Health and Environment attended Monday’s forum.
Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for DCF, said the department’s Child Care Licensing Systems Improvement Team will host a similar forum from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Kansas Association of School Boards office, 1420 SW Arrowhead Road, in Topeka. The meeting, she said, will be open to the public.