TOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Brownback quietly exploring shape of Kansas’ early-childhood education

By Tim Carpenter
October 14, 2015

Gov. Sam Brownback contends poor coordination exists in Kansas among dozens of public and private organizations operating early-education programs to prepare children for kindergarten.

He set up an informal task force to explore avenues for instilling cohesion to expenditures targeting thousands of preschoolers statewide while simultaneously advancing one of the administration’s goals of boosting reading skills among elementary school pupils.

“There’s a really rich point here where you’ve got a lot of assets not well coordinated,” Brownback said. “I think we can produce a far better result, particularly for underprivileged kids.”

Decades of research indicates quality early education for children up to 5 years of age could build a foundation for academic success.

Brownback revealed at a recent poverty conference in Kansas City, Kan., that he established a working group dedicated to early-childhood education. The Republican governor said the cadre had met to discuss options for bringing together entities with divergent funding streams and decision-making structures.

“They are now working together,” Brownback said. “That’s the thing we haven’t seen in the past.”

“It’s been ‘how many are we serving?’ Not ‘what are we trying to get out of this?’ That’s what I keep trying to move things toward,” he said.

Brownback said programs in Kansas didn’t concentrate on a prime objective — such as reading achievement. One goal set by Brownback while running for governor in 2010 was elevation of reading proficiency among fourth-graders. The governor’s group has to discuss potential, for example, of broadening relationships among Head Start and public school districts in Kansas. Participants also sought to identify counties in Kansas with the greatest early-childhood educational shortcomings.

Brownback’s working group includes representatives of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Kansas State Department of Education, Wichita businessman Barry Downing’s Early Learning Center, Head Start, the governor’s office and the Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund.

Janice Smith, executive director of the Children’s Cabinet, said the idea of the study group emerged from a 2014 conversation she had with Amanda Adkins, chairwoman of the Children’s Cabinet, an executive at Cerner Corp. and a former leader of the Kansas Republican Party.

The Children’s Cabinet is involved in distribution of millions of dollars annually in tobacco settlement payments. A majority of Cabinet members are Brownback appointees.

Smith said creation by the study group of a sophisticated report on early-childhood service gaps among communities in Kansas would be a powerful tool.

“If we got that far, it would be great,” she said. “I’m excited about that.”

Smith said research indicated early intervention to be pivotal to improving outcomes for Kansas children because an estimated 90 percent of a child’s brain architecture was established before age 5. Support of quality education and health care services reduce the need for more costly classroom remediation or law enforcement interdiction in the future, she said.

There appears to be general consensus among professionals in Topeka and Manhattan involved in early-childhood education that improving quality of learning experiences for kids was a never-ending quest, demand for program service remains high and public-private partnerships can be fruitful.

No clear agreement exists on how the Brownback administration or Kansas Legislature might blend funding streams to improve outcomes.

“I do think there is a lot of work to do. There are a lot of children out there that need support,” said Reva Wywadis, executive director at Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas. “I don’t know that I agree, personally, that work being done now is poorly coordinated and not collaborative.”

Jan Scheideman, coordinator of the Raising Riley program at the Riley County Health Department in Manhattan, said people engaged with at-risk children were addressing the basic goal of preparing each for kindergarten. She said greater program coordination might be helpful, but had no comment on funding issues.

Through allocations by the Children’s Cabinet, the Raising Riley program received a 2015 grant of $787,000 and the United Way of Greater Topeka, fiscal agent for a series of programs serving Shawnee County, accepted a $2.2 million grant. Collectively, these grant recipients serve more than 2,000 children.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children in Topeka, wasn’t invited to join Brownback’s working group.

“There’s always room for improvement when it comes to coordination across programs,” Cotsoradis said. “It does seem to be an overreach to suggest these programs are not achieving results.”

Expenditures for early-childhood education authorized by the Children’s Cabinet are among the most evidence-based initiatives associated with state government, she said.

Cotsoradis said Kansas could have greater resources for child development had state lawmakers not diverted $200 million in tobacco-settlement payments to Kansas. If that $200 million had been placed in an endowment fund, she said, the account would have conservatively grown to $365 million.

Kansas needs to prepare for scheduled reduction of $16 million, or 24 percent, in annual payments from major tobacco companies, Cotsoradis said. That financial reality will make it more challenging for the state to connect with the private sector, she said.

“You have to adequately fund the public part to get private dollars,” Cotsoradis said.

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