Kentucky Republican says early childhood education is the answer to workforce, childcare crises

A Republican lawmaker on Tuesday promoted his ambitious plan to bolster early childhood education as a way to head off a looming crisis once pandemic-era federal aid dries up for the childcare sector.

Kentucky state Sen. Danny Carroll pitched his legislation at a Senate committee meeting as lawmakers delved into an issue that he says carries short- and long-term implications. A lack of childcare keeps some parents from working, contributing to low workforce participation rates. Reinforcing early childhood education builds a strong foundation that contributes to student success later in life, Carroll said.

“We must take advantage of this crisis that we’re about to face and we must transform the way that we think about early childhood education and the meaning of this,” Carroll told the committee. “It’s not babysitting. It’s not childcare. It’s not daycare. It’s education.”

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The Senate Families and Children Committee took no vote Tuesday on the sweeping measure — a week after Carroll unveiled the proposal. Carroll, who chairs the committee, said he hoped a committee vote could come next week. Much of the discussion, he said, revolves around the bill’s price tag — currently pegged at $300 million over the next two fiscal years.

“You look at the totality of this issue, it’s worth the investment,” Carroll told reporters after the meeting.

Senators are currently reviewing the two-year state spending plan approved by the House and will eventually present their own version. The final budget details will be hashed out in a conference committee of House and Senate leaders. The GOP has supermajorities in both chambers.

Kentucky state Sen. Danny Carroll speaks with reporters about his early childhood education bill on Feb. 20, 2024, in Frankfort, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

Republican state Sen. Julie Raque Adams said she was impressed by the bill’s comprehensive approach, pointing to its potential impact on getting more Kentuckians into the workforce.

“You hear from every sector of society that they have workforce challenges,” she said. “And we’re never going to fix those workforce challenges until we solve this critical piece of childcare.”

The bill comes amid uncertain times nationwide for childcare providers and parents. The $24 billion of pandemic aid that Congress passed in 2021 for childcare businesses is drying up. Republican state lawmakers across the country have responded by embracing plans to support child care.

Still, the largest investments in child care have come from Democratic lawmakers. In New Mexico, the state is covering childcare for most children under 5 using a trust funded by oil and natural gas production. In Vermont, Democratic lawmakers overrode the GOP governor’s veto to pass a payroll tax hike to fund child care subsidies.

Kentucky has lost about half of its childcare providers in the past decade and risks losing more once the federal aid evaporates, necessitating the need for the state to step in with help, Carroll said.

“For once, I want Kentucky to be the one that gets out in front and sets the example for this entire nation,” he told the committee. “And we have an opportunity to do that.”

Carroll’s bill has drawn praise from advocates for business and children.

His measure, dubbed the Horizons Act, would include state support for childcare centers and families struggling to afford childcare. It would create funds meant to help increase the availability of early childhood education services and to foster innovations in early childhood education.

As part of the initiative, the state community and technical college system would offer an associate degree in early childhood education entrepreneurship, to prepare more people to operate childcare centers.

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Carroll’s early childhood proposal stands in contrast to one championed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. The governor has proposed providing preschool for every 4-year-old in Kentucky. His budget plan included $172 million each year of the two-year budget to accomplish that. The program would extend preschool education to an estimated 34,000 additional 4-year-olds, freeing up space for more younger children in childcare centers, he said. His proposals have made no headway in the GOP-dominated legislature.

On Tuesday, state Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander, a key member of Beshear’s administration, touted the governor’s universal pre-K plan at the committee hearing while also praising lawmakers for focusing on the issue of early childhood education.

“Investing in these kids is exactly what we should be doing as a commonwealth,” he said.

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