FRANKFORT — Before the end of 2017, a plan will be put in place to rate the quality of every publicly funded early child care facility in Kentucky.
And while it will take some time to see results from the All-STARS (Accelerating Learning Statewide Through an Advanced Rating System) five-star rating program, expanded under House Bill 234, the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Executive Director Terry Tolan said the goal – “kindergarten- readiness” for all Kentucky’s children—is crystal clear.
“We want to see more children enter kindergarten ready to be successful on the first day,” Tolan told the Kentucky General Assembly’s Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee on Wednesday.
Only 50 percent of Kentucky children were ready for kindergarten during the last statewide kindergarten readiness screening in 2014, meaning over 24,500 children were unprepared, said Tolan. The percentage of children who were prepared for school increased only one percent from 2013.
“If we do what we’ve always done, we’re not going to have more children ready for kindergarten. We’ve got to continue to find ways to reach more families, put more kids in high quality early learning experiences,” said Tolan.
Once fully implemented, she said there will be more than 2,000 quality-rated child care centers for parents and guardians to choose from across the Commonwealth.
Funding for the All-STARS program—which will expand the current STARS for KIDS NOW rating system and be implemented by the fall of 2017 —will be drawn from a $44 million federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant that Kentucky received last year. That money is expected to run out sometime in 2017, although the Cabinet and Early Childhood Advisory Council will have plans in place to sustain the All-STARS program before that happens, Tolan said.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, explored what those plans may be. “Short of asking for appropriations, which everybody would expect, what else is there—what can you do?” he asked Tolan.
Part of the plan, she responded, will likely be to make sure that investments are paying off.
“We all want to make sure that the dollars we are investing are getting us where we need to be…or getting kids where they need to be, more importantly,” said Tolan. “But yes, at some point, it’s going to take some additional investment to sustain programs going forward.”
Westerfield said he has been told that earning a higher quality rating could be “cost-prohibitive” for some early child care facilities. Tolan responded that having more qualified staff and better staff-to-student ratios does cost more, and the state plans to craft a rewards system—backed by Race to the Top dollars—to alleviate some expense.
Rewards “will be tied to the ratings,” said Tolan.
Increased reimbursement for quality programs that serve low-income children, better access to scholarships, and discounts on products to improve classroom quality are all possibilities, she said.
In addition to the Race to the Top early learning grant, Kentucky puts 25 percent of its annual share of funding from a 1998 national tobacco settlement agreement toward early childhood education. Tolan said the tobacco money has been leveraged to acquire other funds.
Tobacco settlement funding for Kentucky’s early child care programs, including STARS for KIDS NOW, totaled over $17 million over the last biennium, according to the Office of Early Childhood’s last biannual report.
Committee Co-Chair Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Scottsville, praised a recent agreement between Kentucky and tobacco companies that saved the state well over $100 million in potentially-lost tobacco settlement dollars. The agreement, Stone explained, will help early childhood education and other areas aided by the 1998 settlement as payments from the 17 year old agreement dwindle.
“Even though we fear a dramatic decline in funding, at least that decline maybe will be more measured and will play out over a much longer period of time,” said Stone.
The committee also received a report from Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy Executive Director Roger Thomas and his staff on projects considered by the state Agricultural Development Board considered in July.