By Dave Ranney
March 17, 2015

The chairman of the House Social Services Budget Committee on Monday withdrew an earlier proposal that would have set aside $3 million for an elementary school reading program. “Numerous red flags have come up,” said Rep. Will Carpenter, a Republican from El Dorado.

The recommendation had been contingent upon the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreeing to allow the state to spend a portion of its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant on its Parents as Teachers program.

If HHS approved the proposal, Carpenter and others were prepared to take $3 million from the Parents as Teachers budget, most of which is funded with tobacco master settlement revenues, and replace it with $3 million from TANF.

The arrangement would have made $3 million in the state’s tobacco fund available for the reading program. But Carpenter said he’d been told not to expect HHS to approve using TANF monies to underwrite Parents as Teachers. “At this point in time, I’m going to pass on the recommendations that involve that $3 million,” he said, addressing a morning meeting of the full House Appropriations Committee.

Carpenter said the Kansas Department for Children and Families had advised him that TANF is intended for anti-poverty programs that meet at-risk families’ immediate needs, promote employment, reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage marriage. Kansas Parents as Teachers programs are administered by local boards of education.

Because they are considered educational rather than anti-poverty, they likely would not be eligible for TANF. The finding, Carpenter said, shelved his support for putting $3 million into an initiative aimed at helping elementary schools pay for computer programs that help students learn to read. “Zero,” he said after the hearing.

“There’s no money at this point in time.” But Carpenter said he’s also heard that the state may receive more tobacco monies than initially projected. If that happens, he said, he would be willing to propose spending some of the windfall on the reading initiative. Earlier this year, Gov. Sam Brownback dropped the reading initiative, called Lexia Reading Core 5, from his proposed budgets for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

The program generated controversy in 2013 after Rep. Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican and then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, added a last-minute proviso to a session-ending budget bill that earmarked $12 million in tobacco master settlement revenues — $6 million a year for two years — for Educational Design Solutions, a small company owned by Don Fast, who lives in Rhoades’ district. Fast’s company sells licensed access to the Lexia software. The proviso did not allow other software companies to bid on the program.

The social services budget committee’s now-tabled proposal would have allowed other software companies to bid on the initiative. “We need to quit calling this ‘Lexia’ because what we’d be recommending — if the money becomes available — would be an RFP (request for proposals) that would be open to anyone who wanted to bid on it,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter also said he was troubled by reports that using TANF for Parents as Teachers would require the programs to validate participating families’ incomes and make sure TANF dollars were only spent on low-income families.

“The last thing I want to do is create some giant bureaucracy,” he said. Still, Carpenter recommended directing the Kansas Department of Education to “consider implementing a sliding-fee scale” for families receiving services through Parents as Teachers programs.

“As it is now, you can make a million dollars a year and you get Parents as Teachers for free,” he said. “I just think it’s wrong not to charge something when people have the ability to pay.” The social service budget committee also proposed moving $200,000 out of the Parents as Teachers budget and into the budget for the Court Appointed Special Advocates.

The full appropriations committee is expected to vote Tuesday on the social services budget committee’s recommendations. Nancy Keel, president of the Kansas Parents as Teachers Association, questioned the administrative hassles that would accompany having to adopt a sliding-fee scale. “We don’t know what administering a sliding scale would cost a school district,” Keel said. “That’s an unknown as this point because school districts don’t ask for income verification.

They don’t ask, because they don’t think it’s any of their business.” Students’ eligibility for free and reduced-priced lunch programs, she said, is based on families that self-report their incomes.

Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive with the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said she would encourage legislators to weigh the perceived benefits of a sliding-fee scale with the potential for causing some families to avoid receiving early diagnosis and intervention services. “This is an issue that’s best left in the hands of KDoE,” she said.

Last year in Kansas, Parents as Teachers screened more than 10,000 children, ages 0 to 3, for hearing, vision, health and development.

Nearly 1,400 of these children were referred to programs that provide more hands-on early childhood development services. There are approximately 70 Parents as Teachers programs in Kansas, employing more than 200 home-visitation workers in more than 150 school districts across the state.

The Parents as Teachers total operating budget now stands at $12.3 million a year, including $7.2 million from the Children’s Initiatives Fund and $5.1 million from school districts, grants, foundations and local charities. The state-funded portion of the program’s overall budget has been flat since 2008.

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