Kansas lawmakers desperately need to fix the childcare shortage. Can they agree on how?
Tory Marie Blew first got on a waiting list for infant care when she got married. She waited over three years before a spot finally opened.
Thankfully for Blew, a Republican state representative from Great Bend, Kansas, she wasn’t pregnant when she first signed up. She is now, and the recently-available opening will come just in time for her baby.
“I’m lucky for that, that it’s all gonna work out,” she said, but getting the spot wasn’t a guarantee. “I just kept thinking, ‘Am I going to be having to bring my child to work with me? What’s going to happen?’”
Kansas has a crippling child care shortage. Families can spend years waiting for help because the number of families looking for care far outnumber the spaces available in child care centers.
Child Care Aware of Kansas estimates the state is more than 84,000 openings short. While families wait, parents call off work or scramble to find friends or family who can take in their kids.
And even when they find a place that can look after the kid while Mom and Dad work, families can pay more than their mortgage to keep their child enrolled in care, and providers can’t cut their rates because profit margins are so slim.
The state’s legislators look motivated to do something.
Statehouse ideas for child care
Kansas lawmakers have floated a range of proposals likely to draw hearings in the upcoming legislative session that kicks off in January. Whether legislators can agree to expand tax breaks or loosen child care regulations to remake the market may not become clear for months.
Some of those ideas include:
- Looking at child care subsidies. That could mean increasing child care assistance so more families get help, including middle-class families who may not usually get subsidies.
- Exploring a state tax credit for child care for families and providers. That could mirror the federal child tax credit.
- Putting child care programs under one system. A state task force has looked into this as well, but it would streamline where families and providers need to go for help.
Other states have rolled out new taxes to pay for child care, but top-ranking lawmakers in Kansas don’t see that as an option. The state also has an almost $3 billion budget surplus to work with.
Last session, the Kansas Legislature passed a bill that would strip away regulations on providers. The bill would have let 16-year-olds care for kids and would have increased infant-to-staff ratios in child care centers from 1-to-3 to 1-to-4, among other changes.
The hope was that looser regulations would help businesses grow, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly over safety concerns. Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, said in an emailed statement that he’s still interested in sending “the governor solutions that will reduce regulations for providers and costs for parents while increasing access to quality child care without increasing taxes on Kansans.”
Are regulations to blame?
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has proposed changing a handful of its regulations. Some of those would increase child-to-staff ratios and address other concerns pushed by Republicans in 2023. Those changes are waiting for the attorney general’s approval.
But there is some desire to go further.
Blew, the Great Bend Republican, sat on the committee that looked at child care. She isn’t sure how much money the state should spend on child care, but some of the ideas she’s heard came with $300 million price tags.
“That’s an outrageous amount of money,” she said. “We need to make sure — especially me, as a conservative — that the state isn’t fully funding child care (for families).”
Blew said child care is overregulated. Conservatives argue overregulation stops businesses from growing and limits the number of slots statewide.
Tanya Koehn, interim executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, said reducing regulations won’t free up that many spots. She thinks the state needs to invest more in early childhood programs.
How much to spend on care
Koehn said the patchwork of grants that pay for many childhood programs fails to offer a clear and consistent funding model.
Child Care Aware, for example, has a program funded by a private foundation. Baby Steps pays providers thousands of dollars to expand infant slots. The program is a welcome sight for businesses on tight budgets, but it operates mostly in rural areas.
“We’re only in a small number of counties out in the rural area,” Koehn said. “It’s not addressing the needs at all for all infant care.”
Koehn said the state needs a more consistent approach to funding. The Beacon heard from multiple advocates who said they are optimistic lawmakers are willing to spend more on early childhood.
Koehn said she’d like the state to rework the child care subsidy so more money flows directly to families. Kansas can add all the spots it wants, she said, but the state won’t be helping everyone if those spots are unaffordable.
“We really have to focus on our families,” she said. “We can’t forget that they are a big picture of child care.”
Child care subsidy changes
The state’s child care subsidy has a lose-lose problem.
The subsidy will pay for a portion of child care, but not enough providers take subsidies in the first place, advocates say. Low-income families on subsidy don’t get enough money to make child care affordable, a statewide survey found. Middle-class families also make too much for subsidies and then shoulder the load of child care without any help.
That’s why Koehn and other groups want heftier subsidies.
The subsidy only covers a family of four if they make less than $6,250 a month when they first apply. Some lawmakers want to see the state raise that to around $11,000 a month, or 450% of the federal poverty line for a family of four.
The federal government help pays for the subsidy, but substantial increases require states to use their own tax dollars to cover the difference. That’s led to some apprehension from lawmakers about the cost of the program.
A beefier subsidy can do more than just pay families, though. Some groups proposed using the subsidy to encourage specialty services, like 24-hour care.
Hundreds of thousands of Kansans speak other languages, but Kansas has few bilingual child care options, said Amanda Vega-Mavec, vice president of programs at El Centro.
Starting a child care business comes with high costs, she said, and that can discourage people from starting their own business. Vega-Mavec doesn’t know how much the Legislature should invest in these programs, but she said the time has come to invest in providers.
“We are paying attention more than we have in the past and we need to take advantage of that,” she said. “We need to take advantage of the momentum that we have to really address this.”
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