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Kentucky Republican proposes up to $300 million to support child care centers

Kentucky Sen. Danny Carroll is pictured behind a dais, speaking to two people seated in the foreground.
LRC Public Information Office
Sen. Danny Carroll, pictured here while discussing a different issue at the Kentucky Capitol, introduced the "Horizons Act" Tuesday.

A Kentucky senator wants the state to invest $300 million in early childhood education, including grants for struggling child care providers.

State Sen. Danny Carroll, a Benton Republican, unveiled a big new bill Tuesday to address Kentucky’s child care crisis. He’s asking his fellow lawmakers to devote as much as $150 million annually to that effort in the state government’s next two-year budget.

He named it the “Horizons Act,” and the proposal has public support from organizations like Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“It is my belief that early childhood education is the foundation for a student's educational career. And we must make that foundation strong,” Carroll said at a news conference in Frankfort. “We do our youngest students a huge disservice by not considering them as students and investing in them beginning the day they are born.”

Carroll is CEO of Easterseals West Kentucky, which includes child care among a range of services it offers. He suggested “early childhood education” as an umbrella term that encompasses and better describes the work done by child care providers.

The Kentucky Legislature is developing a new state budget this year, and Carroll indicated the $300 million request attached to his bill will be a point of negotiation.

Specifically, Carroll’s proposal — Senate Bill 203 — would establish several new funds that all share the overarching goal of making early childhood education services more available in Kentucky.

For example, one fund would offer grants to programs that pursue innovative ways of delivering early childhood education to families, while another would give grant money to new providers.

The “foundations for early learning fund” would give money to child care centers and family child care homes based on how many kids are enrolled in each program, similar to Kentucky’s SEEK funding formula for K-12 public schools.

“We don't expect for the same level of investment to go in early childhood education,” Carroll said. “We just want to be able to sustain and grow.”

A survey of more than 750 child care providers showed they are in a bind as they say goodbye to the hefty but temporary increase in federal funds they received in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey showed child care centers expect they’ll have to hike tuition rates, reduce employee wages, lay off workers or even shut down their operations if they don’t get a big bump in state funds to support their work.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services has said a $330 million annual investment from the state would be needed to make up for the federal assistance that’s disappearing.

“Cutting teacher pay means starting wages are lower than the starting wage at our local McDonald's or our Walmart. Raising parent tuition places additional strain on families’ already strained budgets. And closing creates even larger child care deserts,” said Jennifer Washburn, who owns the iKids Childhood Enrichment Center in Benton.

Washburn stood alongside Carroll Tuesday to show her support for his plan.

“The Horizons Act is an exceptional starting point to address the needs of a broken system,” she said.

Among other policy changes, Carroll’s bill would arrange for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System to offer an associate degree program in “interdisciplinary early childhood education entrepreneurship.”

Carroll said this idea has the backing of KCTCS’ leadership and will give students the tools to build their own early childhood education business.

“And what we want to see in this degree is we will see students go in and come out with the ability to open up their own center. … And hopefully that's going to grow centers throughout the state,” Carroll said.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.