KS Senate passes bill to reduce child care regulations. Critics say it decreases safety

·7 min read
Rebecca Slezak/rslezak@kcstar.com

A year ago the Stormont Vail hospital system began considering ways to expand child care options within the hospital system for their employees.

But the process proved to be more difficult than expected, said Darlene Stone who runs the programs. Stone said the state’s strict rules for training and adult to child ratios are restrictive.

Stone said she’s considered bringing one of the Topeka programs to 100 or more children but the training requirements for the director mean that her chosen director, who has spent years in the public school system and working for the program, will need an additional year to get certified to care for that many children.

“We can’t expand, we don’t have capacity. Kids are not getting care that is needed and you’re just short,” Stone said.

The Kansas Senate voted 21 to 17 Thursday to approve a bill drastically altering child care regulations in the state in an effort to expand access in the state by reducing red tape for providers. But provider groups warn the measures could harm the safety of providers and children and put federal dollars at risk while impeding existing efforts to address child care in Kansas.

The bill narrowly earned the votes to passage as five Republicans and one independent voted no with Democrats. Sen. Virgil Peck, a Havana Republican, changed his original no to yes to get the bill across the line. It now heads to the Kansas House.

According to Child Care Aware of Kansas, a chapter of a national organization aimed at promoting quality child care, the state needs more than 85,000 new child care slots to meet existing demand. Child care access and affordability has been a mounting crisis in Kansas and nationwide as affordable care represents an increasing barrier to working parents.

Republican Sens. Chase Blasi from Wichita and Kristen O’Shea from Topeka, both parents to young children, said their bill reducing regulations is the beginning of an answer in Kansas.

The bill decreases training and continuing education requirements from teachers and staff in child care facilities while increasing the child to adult maximum ratio requirement for facilities.

“It’ll have an immediate impact in terms of cutting the red tape,” Blasi said.

“The number (of children without child care) has gotten worse over the course of time as providers have been pushed out and one of the reasons is due to these restrictions,” he added.

Time is of the essence, Blasi said, because families are struggling to access child care now.

But Sen. Mary Ware, a Wichita Democrat, called the bill rushed. While it may create more slots, she said it might do so by harming the safety of children and workers.

“It is not child-centered. We are talking about child care — where are the children in this? That’s my question. It is not child-centered. It isn’t even child care worker-centered,” Ware said.

Rolling back regulations

In 2010 the Kansas Legislature passed “Lexie’s law” which required all child care facilities in Kansas to be licensed and granted the Kansas Department of Health and Environment authority to create regulations detailing requirements for the supervision of children. The bill was named for Lexie Engelman, a 13-month-old child who suffered fatal injuries in a Johnson County day care in 2004.

But since the law was enacted regulations on licensed providers have become increasingly cumbersome, some say. The result, O’Shea said, is more unlicensed providers in the state and less flexibility for providers.

“The current system is causing people to seek unregulated care. I went to care.com and hired a nanny, it wasn’t a good situation,” O’Shea said.

Marty Keaton-Ferren, an in-home provider in Overland Park, said she’s seen that firsthand. In her personal business, Keaton said, the ratios reduce most of her flexibility.

But she said she also knows several unlicensed providers who say they cannot make a living at the state’s current adult to child ratio requirements.

“Maybe if we made our capacity numbers better some of these providers that are out there … maybe that’s one less obstacle to getting them licensed,” Keaton-Ferren said.

But other providers and advocates say the combination of less training and higher adult to child ratios risks safety for staff and children.

“There’s nothing in this bill that’s going to increase safety,” said Ethan Corson, a Fairway Democrat.

Kelly Davydov, executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, said the changes made after Lexie’s Law put Kansas at the top of the nation in terms of child safety.

“It really at that time launched us to the front of the line in terms of quality early care and education,” Davydov said. “Some of the changes in this bill are moving us away from national health and safety standards and best practices.”

She said the pairing of decreased training requirements with increased adult to child ratios represented a “really dangerous mix of changes.”

She noted that the bill would allow workers with less training to watch more children.

Furthermore, Davydov said, the decreased continuing education could put Kansas out of compliance with existing requirements to receive federal child care funding.

Blasi said any issues regarding federal funding could be addressed as the bill works its way through the statehouse. He argued Kansas is more stringent than most other states and the bill would bring the state’s requirements closer to the national averages.

“Of course we kept in mind, as parents, safety as one of the most important things,” Blasi said.

A rushed process?

Many opponents of the bill agreed that a closer look at state regulations that might be over restrictive was needed, but they said the Senate bill undercut existing progress in the state.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has prioritized child care in her second term and announced a task force earlier this year to study the child care system in Kansas. Her office said in a statement she’d evaluate the legislation if it reaches her desk.

Last year the Kansas Department of Health and Environment considered ratio changes similar to what was proposed in the bill but those regulatory changes were halted after some providers expressed concern.

In a statement Matt Lara, a spokesman for KDHE, said the agency is currently conducting a “comprehensive review” of existing regulations.

“This review will allow us to bring forth changes to ease the burden placed on providers and expand access for families,” Lara said.

Emily Barnes, the vice president of the Child Care Providers Coalition of Kansas, was one of the stakeholders who expressed concern with the initial proposed changes. Since KDHE hit the brakes on those regulations, Barnes said, there have been wide ranging conversations about what should happen.

The legislative push, she said, ignored that reality.

“Conversations are happening and some of the messaging from the workforce is ‘hey we don’t have a consensus amongst the people doing the work,’” Barnes said.

Kansas, she said, has a serious issue to confront with child care but she said the bill rushes to creates hard to repeal statutes without all the stakeholders at the table.

“We still have to make it through the longer conversation and just simply pushing something through because you have a super majority does not fix the grander problem,” Barnes said.

Blasi said the bill was a response to constituents who wanted an answer to the problem sooner rather than later. Child care providers, he said, had been involved every step of the way.

The role of the Legislature he said was in part to step in if state agencies had acted inappropriately with their regulatory authority.

Some suggested the bill may make child care access worse because it did not address the existing workforce shortage.

“This bill puts kids at risk, cements current standards into Kansas law, and treats child care like babysitting – not a profession that requires experienced workers. We should expect Kansas child care to be high-quality; our kids deserve nothing less,” Jessica Herrera Russell, a spokeswoman for Kansas Action For Children,said in a statement.

O’Shea argued the bill could help staffing by reducing burnout caused by stringent training requirements and a lack of flexibility. She acknowledged that the bill wasn’t the complete answer to the state’s child care problems.

“I think you’re gonna start to see more private partners step into the conversation because there’s a little less red tape, O’Shea said. “But we need to keep looking for solutions.”

The Star’s Jenna Barackman contributed to this story.