Proposed Kansas solution to child care shortage: Slash staff training, expand adult-to-child ratio

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Senate bill exposes policy divisions on best way to deal with day care crisis

TOPEKA — Three limited-government organizations, two child facility operators and one state senator Wednesday endorsed legislation crafted to alleviate a shortage of day care options in Kansas by reducing employee training requirements, lowering the minimum age of staff and increasing the ratio of adults-to-children in facilities.

There was consensus Kansas was at a crisis stage in terms of the gap between kids in need of child care and availability of affordable, quality placements. A Senate committee’s hearing on Senate Bill 282 also revealed a gulf between supporters focused on lowering regulatory obstacles in the child care business and critics arguing those changes would put children at risk and jeopardize federal funding.

The Senate Commerce Committee didn’t take action on the bill, but questions and comments by senators affirmed disagreements existed among lawmakers on how to proceed.

Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, said the Legislature ought to appoint an interim committee to take time necessary to fully vet the subject and learn from all participants in the child care system. It’s not sufficient to give supporters and opponents of the Senate bill two minutes during one committee meeting to summarize real-world insights and explore research into the subject, she said.

“This is a complex issue,” Rooker said. “You’re not going to solve it by passing any particular bill.”

Rooker said the Children’s Cabinet was working with KDHE on a comprehensive review of rules and regulations applicable to child care licensing in Kansas. The goal should be to avoid inserting changes into state statute before completion of a thorough examination of options, she said.

Elizabeth Patton, representing Americans for Prosperity in Kansas, said the bill was necessary because it tackled the proliferation of rules and regulations established by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. She indicated KDHE’s inflated bureaucracy and requirements handed down by the agency contributed to the child care shortage.

“Not saying that every one of those regulations is unnecessary,” Patton said, “but I do think this is the first step in reviewing and weeding out those that are red tape.”

Sen. Chase Blasi, R-Wichita, said he appreciated collaborating with Topeka GOP Sen. Kristen O’Shea on the bill addressing the regulatory side of the child care issue. He said the state had long waiting lists for safe, affordable child care, and Kansas professionals were being forced to leave the workforce to take care of their kids.

“The child care crisis affects all demographics. It affects all races, all socio-economic standards — rich, low income, rural, urban. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Blasi said.

Under the bill, no city or county could adopt an ordinance or resolution more restrictive than the proposed state law on staff-to-child ratios or the number of allowed children per facility. The bill would amend the current 3:1 ratio of adults to children to 4:1, meaning each staff member could look after more children. Individuals as young as 14 would be able to look after kids and those teenagers would be considered staff for calculation of adult-to-child ratios. Staff training linked to licensure requirements would be capped at eight hours annually.

Slashing ongoing professional development in half, permitting minors as young as 14 to care for the state’s youngest residents and expanding adult-to-child ratios undermines integrity of the Kansas system, said Kelly Davydov, executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas.

“What we are doing in this legislation is reducing the level of training, preparation and overall competency of our child care workforce,” Davydov said. “We are reducing the minimum age requirements and asking children to care for other children.”

Ashley Goss, deputy director of public health at KDHE, said the agency opposed contents of the Senate bill. She said the bill wasn’t drafted at the urging of child care advocates, didn’t reflect national standards on child development and would return the state to policies reminiscent of the 1980s.

David Jordan, president and chief executive officer of Hutchinson-based United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, said increasing capacity of facilities wouldn’t necessarily correspond to more child care slots because providers were overworked.

“Asking child care providers to care for additional children, and reducing their required hours for training and preparation, with no additional support misplaces the burden of solving our child care challenges and has the potential to put our most vulnerable Kansans in danger,” he said.

The bill should be rejected because implementation would put Kansas out of compliance with federal mandates and place federal funding at jeopardy, Jordan said.

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