Legislation mandating a comprehensive ratings system for early childhood education programs moved through the House Friday, but not before a lengthy floor debate how the system would be funded after federal grant dollars dry up.
House Bill 332, sponsored by Rep. Derrick Graham, cleared the House by 79-11 vote. The bill is part of a four-year, $44.3 million federal Race to the Top grant awarded in December and, if passed, will require the state to develop a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System for family childcare homes, state-funded preschools and Head Start programs based on child-to-caregiver ratios, training for childcare staff, program curriculum and regulatory compliance.
Graham, D-Frankfort, said the grant money must be spent by Dec. 31, 2017. About $18 million will be used for training and on-site assistance for childcare providers, $21 million will provide improvement incentives and $4 million to measure program progress for parents and family resources.
The $44.3 million federal grant will help improve young children’s kindergarten and elementary school readiness, he said.
Gov. Steve Beshear, who added early childhood education initiatives in his biennial budget proposal, praised the vote on HB 332.
“This bill, known as the STARS bill, will offer Kentucky families an easy-to-understand ratings system for day cares and preschools that shows the quality of those early childhood programs – similar to a restaurant rating,” Beshear said in a statement. “… Every parent should be able to choose high quality programs that fit the needs of their family, and I call on the Senate to give this bill the consideration it deserves for the benefit of our youngest citizens.”
A screening of 26,000 preschoolers in all 173 school districts showed 51 percent were unprepared for kindergarten entering the 2013 school year, Graham said.
“What this grant does and what this bill will allow us to do is to implement those programs and get these kids ready for school,” he said. “We’re putting the money on the front end so we will not have to put money on the back end to get our kids career and college ready.”
But Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, introduced a floor amendment that would sunset the ratings system once grant funds are spent.
DeCesare’s amendment was defeated 48-41, but it sparked about an hour of debate between those who called the bill an unfunded mandate and others who said HB 332 would be sustainable once fully implemented.
“I’ve asked a simple question: Who’s going to pay for it after the money runs out?” DeCesare said, noting lawmakers could re-evaluate the program once grant funds expire.
Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, said DeCesare’s amendment made “perfect sense.”
“Once this review process is established, once this rating system is established, there’s no more need to expend money to create a review process, an appellate process and a rating system,” he said.
Those who opposed the floor amendment said maintaining the rating program would prove a valuable investment for Kentucky’s future. The National Conference of State Legislatures released a study recently that showed for every $1 spent on early childhood development, state governments receive an $8 return, said Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.
“While I agree with the proposition we need to be paying attention to that moment when the money runs out, I would submit to this body we can’t afford not to,” he said. “Whether the money’s there or not, we need to find it.”
Said Democratic Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow: “You’re going to pay for this if you do not educate these children. There are a lot of states that estimate the growth of their prison systems by the test scores of their fourth graders.”
House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover chided those who insinuated a vote against HB 332 equates to a vote against Kentucky’s youth. He said some raised valid questions with HB 332’s fiscal impact beyond 2017.
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t support children or that we don’t support education, and I’m a little offended,” said Hoover, R-Jamestown. “And I’m voting ‘yes,’ but I’m offended for those who are voting ‘no.’”