By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers approved a change to the funding for the Parents as Teachers program, that would remove eligibility criteria.
The state House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to move the funding from the program from federal TANF funds to the state Children’s Initiative Fund. The move, which changes a 2016 decision to move it from CIF to TANF, would remove the requirement that anyone seeking to enroll in Parents as Teachers have to meet one of 19 eligibility criteria. The state Senate Ways and Means Committee previously made the same change in their budget draft.
“They catch things that the pediatrian may not catch. They catch these early learning disabilities, autism, vision, hearing,” Appropriations Committee Ranking Minority Member Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City), who made the motion, said of the program. “They refer them to appropriate resources before they get to kindergarten.”
Parents as Teachers is a national early childhood development program implemented at the state level to teach parenting skills, teach parents how to be teachers and work with parents on early childhood development. In 2016, Kansas lawmakers changed the funding stream and put into place a means test for the program, limiting eligibility to low income families. Lawmakers later changed the means test to meeting one of 19 criteria to qualify for the program.
Supporters of the Parents as Teachers program said that the program benefits everyone who participates and that it should be open to all residents and not to a small group. Among the opponents of the change last year were lawmakers from suburban Johnson County, who argued that the program was popular among their constituents.
During Tuesday’s committee debate, supporters of Wolfe Moore’s amendment praised the work of the program and noted that it should be open to as many as possible. Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) said that he’s seen the program up close and praised it as “tremendous.” He said that eligibility should not be limited.
“There aren’t programs for middle class folks out there. There could be value for middle class folks that have three, four kids and need that early intervention,” Claeys said. “I don’t know if we need means testing and can have programs for middle class folks.”
Wolfe Moore praised the Parents as Teachers program as a way to identify problems with children before they enter school. She said this allows for the issues to be addressed early and head off any problems while in school. She said this could change a child’s future. She said that the change did not work and it was now time for lawmakers to make a change.
“We tried something with this program for the past couple of years and no harm in that, but it clearly has not worked,” Wolfe Moore said. “It makes no sense to me as a citizen legislator with all the information that I have been given to continue down this path.”
Rep. Sean Tarwater (R-Stilwell) said that he had heard from Parents as Teachers officials who objected to the program being moved from TANF over to CIF. He said that while he has used the program himself and it worked, he wanted to hear more from the program before moving forward.
Wolfe Moore questioned where Tarwater was receiving his information. She said that she had spoken to the statewide coordinator of the program on Monday night, who said that the program should be moved back to CIF.
House Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman Erin Davis (R-Olathe) said that she used the program when she was a new mother with twins and found it useful, but said that she would prefer it to stay under TANF. She said that she has the means to pay for Parents as Teachers and others do not and she felt it should stay under TANF to address that.
Davis noted that the criteria allows for teen mothers to be in the program.
“The benefit that has gone without discussion today, is you were previously were a teen parent and are on this list and could be waitlisted,” she said. “Now if you are a teen parent you go to the front of the line.”
Davis also said she felt the TANF program as a federal block grant assured future funding, noting that the CIF funds come from the state’s tobacco settlement which will end. Wolfe Moore said that the state is likely to get tobacco settlement funds for another 20-30 years and that would cover the $7.2 million cost of Parents as Teachers. Wolfe Moore said that she herself was more concerned about the future of the amount of TANF funds the state could receive from the federal government.
Social Services Budget Committee Ranking Minority Member Barbara Ballard (D-Lawrence) recalled the statewide debate over the Parents as Teachers program last year. She said that the state Capital switchboard was overwhelmed with calls from residents objecting to the change and that she and other lawmakers received many emails objecting. Ballard said that lawmakers could now make the change back to the previous funding stream.
Ballard said that lawmakers should not be deciding what children should be receiving from their parents.
“Parenting is too important and children need the best parents they can have,” she said. “We should not be the ones who decide who gets the best parents in their lives.”