By Angela Deines
August 10, 2016

The new president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children is hopeful the 2017 Kansas Legislature will provide a friendlier atmosphere for early childhood activists and supporters.

“Advocates would characterize a hostile climate,” Annie McKay said, describing recent legislative sessions. “We’re looking forward to the climate in 2017.”

McKay’s optimism stems from the Aug. 2 primaries, in which moderate Republicans defeated several conservative lawmakers, increasing the likelihood they will join Democrats on restoring some of the investments in early childhood initiatives and other education-related programs.

Speaking after the YWCA of Northeast Kansas luncheon Wednesday at which McKay was the featured presenter, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she “fully concurs” with McKay’s hopeful outlook for the legislative session that will begin in January.

“I think any public service programs have been under attack, any safety net programs, all public education, going down into early childhood education and subsidized childcare,” Kelly said, especially since 2012, when several moderate Republican lawmakers were defeated by more conservative members of the GOP. “I think we’re going to see a shift when we get into 2017.”

Kelly said while Democrats and moderate Republicans may not agree on everything in the upcoming session, she said she believes important alliances will be formed in key areas.

“You change partners depending upon the issue,” Kelly said. “I do believe on the high priority issues — the restructuring of our tax system, on funding public education, on focusing on early childhood, and restoring our infrastructure, our transportation program — I think we’re going to have consensus across the board.”

McKay said while she feels more positive about the future, the past year was tough on early childhood funding. She said that was because millions of dollars were swept from the Children’s Initiative Fund that pays for many early childhood education programs, and into the state general fund by the Brownback administration.

“Now nearly one out of every two CIF dollars goes into filling the state’s budget hole,” she said. “These policy decisions we make aren’t without repercussions. Until we make some changes, early childhood remains in the crosshairs of filling the budget hole.”

McKay said she was heartened, however, that several attempts by Brownback officials to sell future state tobacco settlement proceeds — money that is supposed to go into the CIF and the Kansas Endowment for Youth — for a one-time payment of $400 million to deal with budget shortfalls, ultimately were “staved off.” She said that was due in large part to the efforts of Shannon Cotsoradis, McKay’s predecessor; other early childhood advocates; and Kansas citizens who contacted their lawmakers.

“The more they hear from us,” she said, “the greater the impact long-term.”

McKay said a drop in the overall ranking of Kansas children’s welfare from 15th to 19th place in the latest national Kids Count data is a consequence of funding cuts to early childhood programs.

“One out of four of our Kansas kids are living with a parent that doesn’t have year-round full-time employment,” McKay said, adding that half of Kansas children qualify for free and reduced-price school meals. “That trend is going in the wrong direction, and there’s no reason for it. We’re pulling back (on funding) when we can least afford it.”

Nancy Kirk, a member of the Topeka Unified School District 501 board of education, told the audience 79 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“That has gone up dramatically over the last seven to eight years,” she said.

Kirk said USD 501 also struggles to offer universal preschool because many of the district’s efforts are hampered by changing funding priorities at state and national levels.

“We used to serve over 800 children in pre-K, and we don’t do that anymore,” she said.

Evidence of USD 501’s attempts to build its universal preschool program was seen this past summer through a new program funded by the YWCA and the United Way of Greater Topeka. Lauren Journot, YWCA’s youth services program manager, said 86 children with little to no preschool participated in the five-week program designed to get them ready for kindergarten this fall.

Journot said early childhood education is a valuable investment beyond the teaching of academic skills.

“Getting students ready socially and developmentally to learn is a huge piece of early childhood (education),” she said. “It’s not just academics, but that’s a big piece. Learning through play is the biggest part. What’s natural is them learning through exploration and learning through play.”

Read more from the Topeka Capital Journal.