My Reflections on Governor Kelly’s Address

Commentary on Governor Kelly’s State of the State

My Reflections on Governor Kelly’s Address

In her State of the State address last night, Gov. Laura Kelly called on Kansas legislators to make Kansas “the best place in America to raise a family.” This refrain rang through her remarks, and as the leader of an organization that shares that goal, I was encouraged.

Specifically, as it relates to The Family Conservancy’s work to make the most of the critical first five years of life, I was excited to hear child care, access to mental health services, and Medicaid expansion among her priorities.

With the largest budget surplus in state history, there has never been a better time. But candidly, we know solving these issues is a major undertaking that will take significant investments. We can be fiscally responsible, but we can’t be foolish or take half measures. It’s time to make the bold and necessary investments in our early education and mental health infrastructure. We have been reactionary for far too long, and we know addressing the root causes of the deficits in these two issues is the only route for lasting change.

Where We Are

I’d like to share a bit of insight into where we stand on child care and mental health.

The child care sector is in crisis. In Wyandotte and Johnson counties, there is currently capacity to care for 20,624 children, according to Child Care Aware of Kansas. That is roughly 50 percent of the demand (27 percent in Wyandotte, 56 percent in Johnson). The reason is actually quite simple: the sector is significantly underfunded and the model is flawed. Most parents simply can’t afford to pay what it costs to provide early care and education. Creating issues for both parents and providers. I couldn’t have said it better than the governor did last night: we need “… a state where parents are supported. Where child care is abundant and affordable, and where our kids get the strongest start to life.”

There are very few days that pass when I don’t hear a story about a family caught in this quandary, and can’t help but worry about where their children are and the opportunities they are missing – both the parent and the child.

As Kelly mentioned, Mental Health America ranked Kansas last in rates of mental illness and access to services. At our mental health service center in Wyandotte County, we know this all too well. Wyandotte County ranks as the worst county in the worst state in America for mental health outcomes and supports. With very few dollars to support mental health services and limited access to insurance (especially with mental health coverage), it is extremely difficult for individuals to access the care they need and a continuous challenge for providers.

The funding that is available through the state, federal government, and local philanthropy is inadequate. The current reimbursement rates funders provide only cover a fraction of the cost of administering these critical services. As a result, we are unable to attract and retain mental health professionals and often unable to serve children and families.

Where We Need to Be

Kelly’s proposal to expand access to the child care subsidy program is a good start, and the previous effort to extend eligibility to families at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($57,575 for a family of three) has made a significant impact. However, without setting reimbursement rates that cover the actual cost of care, we will continue to face supply issues and the care will continue to be inaccessible for many.

Current child care subsidy reimbursement rates are based on the market rate. But this method is flawed, because many programs aren’t charging the true cost of care because families simply can’t afford it. It creates a vicious cycle and inequity. Many providers choose not to accept subsidies because of the low rate, and it creates a budget gap for those who do. These underfunded programs, where budgets only allow providers to pay teachers $10 – $12, often without any benefits, are experiencing a staffing crisis. Pandemic-related federal funds have helped, but those funds will soon expire, and I am afraid of what will happen. We need to adopt a cost of care model for setting subsidy reimbursement rates. These rates need to support a living wage for teachers and quality care for children.

There is hope. In Wyandotte County, we’ve made significant strides in improving access to quality child care. We work directly with families to help them navigate the often burdensome child care subsidy process. This process can often take months — a luxury most families don’t have. We’ve been providing short term funding to help families access care while they wait on their application approval. We’ve also managed to help programs retain teachers at a rate that is more than double the national average by providing free professional development and salary supplements. We hope these successes can be replicated, and we are optimistic that Kelly’s newly established early education taskforce will look to this work when exploring ways to improve services.

In the mental health arena, Kelly outlined some great initiatives including her proposal to expand the budget for mental health intervention services, providing funding to address the shortage of mental health workers, expanding workers compensation coverage for first responders to include mental health services and expanding Medicaid. (The single largest payer for mental health services in the United States.)

How You Can Get Involved

As Gov. Kelly pointed out, while we don’t always agree, she’s been successful at passing legislation with approval on both sides of the aisle. These are common sense issues all Kansans will benefit from. To put it plainly: it is a no-brainer. We support these goals and plan to work with anyone who shares them. If you are on board, one way you can get involved is by signing up for our advocacy alerts. These alerts will keep you informed of critical opportunities to use your voice to shape the future of Kansas*.

Paula Neth
President & CEO
The Family Conservancy

*If you are a Missouri resident, you can also sign up for alerts in your state, and follow the developments and investments in early childhood Gov. Parson introduced in his Missouri State of the State last week.