Sweeping bill would expand childcare and early childhood education in Kentucky

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FRANKFORT, Ky. — When Jessie Schook shares the joyful news that she’s pregnant with her first child, she says the response is often the same — especially among other female working professionals.

“The excitement is immediately followed by: ‘Are you on a list?’” Schook says.

What they’re asking is if she’s signed up for childcare — months before her baby is due to arrive in June. It reflects the deep anxiety among working parents to find affordable and quality childcare, Schook, a high-level executive with Kentucky’s vast community and technical college system, said Tuesday.

Republican Sen. Danny Carroll unveiled sweeping legislation on Tuesday that’s meant to shore up and expand the network of childcare centers across the Bluegrass State. Another objective is to bolster early childhood education, he said. One long-term goal, he said, is to someday make terms like “childcare” and “daycare” obsolete, replaced by early childhood education — no matter the setting or age of the child.

Carroll is proposing that the state pump $150 million per year into his bill’s childcare initiatives in the next two-year budget cycle, which begins July 1. The Republican-dominated legislature will put its finishing touches on the next state spending plan sometime next month.

“This is a time that Kentucky needs to step up and be a shining example for the rest of the country, and we will reap the benefits of that if we make that decision,” Carroll said at a news conference.

The bill comes amid uncertain times for childcare providers and parents. The $24 billion of pandemic aid that Congress passed in 2021 for childcare businesses is drying up. Republican state lawmakers across the country have responded by embracing plans to support child care.

Still, the largest investments in child care have come from Democratic lawmakers. In New Mexico, the state is covering childcare for most children under 5 using a trust funded by oil and natural gas production. In Vermont, Democratic lawmakers overrode the GOP governor’s veto to pass a payroll tax hike to fund child care subsidies.

In Kentucky, Carroll said his measure, along with his funding request, would “go a long way toward averting the impending crisis we are about to face if we don’t act with purpose and certainty.”

His measure, dubbed the Horizons Act, would include state support for childcare centers and families struggling to afford childcare. It would create funds meant to help increase the availability of early childhood education services and to foster innovations in early childhood education.

As part of the initiative, the state community and technical college system would offer an associate degree in early childhood education entrepreneurship, with the goal that graduates would be prepared to operate childcare centers. Schook expressed the community and technical college system’s readiness to offer the additional program in an effort to expand access to childcare.

But it was her personal comments about the anxiety of finding childcare that especially resonated.

“Any woman professional, male professional, in the commonwealth has to cope with that challenge when they find out this exciting news that their family is growing,” she said.

Carroll’s bill drew broad-based praise from advocates for business and children. A strong childcare network would raise Kentucky’s low workforce participation rate and would further improve the state’s competitiveness in attracting new business, supporters said.

The bill also received an endorsement from Jennifer Washburn, who owns and operates an early childhood education center in Benton in far western Kentucky.

Such centers face constant stress over staffing and tuition, Washburn said. With the loss of federal support, many centers face agonizing options –- either cut staff salaries, raise tuition or close, she said.

She referred to Carroll’s bill as “an exceptional starting point to address the needs of a broken system.”

Kentucky will pay a “huge price” if lawmakers fail to tackle chronic problems in childcare, Carroll said in an interview. That includes a greater emphasis on early childhood education, he said. Lawmakers reached the halfway point of their 60-day session Tuesday, so those decisions will be made in the coming weeks.

“Early childhood education is an afterthought in this state, and we’ve got to make it a priority,” Carroll said. “If we ever want to reach the levels of educational attainment where we want to be, this is where it starts. And I think this is where we’ve been missing the boat for years is by not investing and not providing the best possible early childhood education for as many kids as we can.”

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