Kelly creates early childhood task force with first executive order of second term


TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly signed the first executive order of her second term Tuesday to establish an early childhood task force to determine how state government could better provide kids from birth to kindergarten with high quality care throughout the state.

Kelly, sworn into office Monday and scheduled to deliver the State of the State address Wednesday, said expanding access to childhood programs had been a priority of hers as governor and a member of the Kansas Senate. Improving state investment in childcare should be viewed at the Capitol as a nonpartisan issue of keen interest to urban and rural legislators, she said.

The task force would be charged with devising a roadmap for creating a new state Cabinet-level agency focused solely on supporting success of the youngest Kansans.

“Children of today, including the children here today, are the leaders of tomorrow,” Kelly said at a statehouse news conference. “We know the earliest years of childhood are crucial to determining the trajectory of people’s entire lives, including their economic health, social outcomes and their education attainment. If we want to give our kids the best possible future, then we must give them the strongest possible start.”

The Democratic governor said she would expect the task force to produce recommendations in early 2024. Membership will be drawn from the public and private sectors.

Kelly said research indicated every $1 public investment in early childhood development yielded $9 in benefits by lowering the cost to taxpayers of special education and correctional services. Bolstering the state’s childcare system would help small businesses in the state, she said.

In Kelly’s first term, the state directed $270 million to support childcare providers and increase access to reliable and affordable care for young children. The state’s daycare tax credit was expanded to encourage businesses to cover the cost of childcare services, she said.

Kelly said the task force would evaluate options for streamlining work of four state agencies with a role in early childhood development. That includes the Kansas Department of Education, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund. Earlier proposals by Kelly to consolidate state agencies were rebuffed by the Kansas Legislature.

“While each of these works diligently to provide quality services,” Kelly said, “having services segregated into silos creates inefficiencies, redundancies, service gaps and confusion for providers and families alike.”

Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, said in an interview an important issue for the governor’s task force would be fragmentation of the state’s early childhood system. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need for a more streamlined, efficient system of delivering childcare, she said. That public health calamity affirmed a 2019 assessment by the Children’s Cabinet that concluded families had been left to sort out the myriad of program options in Kansas, she said.

“We’ve got to create a system that works better for Kansas children and the families,” said Rooker, a former Kansas House member.

Rooker said Kansas could follow in footsteps of other states that altered tax policy to incentivize improvements in childcare services. She warned against responding to a shortage of childcare workers by making certain regulatory changes such as raising the child-to-educator ratio.

“We’re talking about children. We want them safe. We want them nurtured,” she said.

John Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the advocacy organization Kansas Action for Children, said he welcomed the governor’s formation of the task force.

“The first five years of a child’s life are critical for their development. The work of this task force will build further collaboration between state agencies, community organizations and advocates to align and strengthen the programs and services that impact the most critical years of a child’s life,” Wilson said.

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