Kentucky House passes bill to prepare preschoolers

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Reporter - Elizabeth Fields
Photojournalist - Randall Barnes

FRANKFORT, Ky (AP/WPSD). - A bill aimed at improving kindergarten readiness by expanding training for preschool staffs and broadening use of a rating system to critique day cares and preschools was passed by the Kentucky House on Friday.

The proposal is a response to Kentucky's emergence as a winner late last year in a national competition for government grants to improve early childhood learning. Kentucky claimed a $44.3 million grant as part of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge competition.

Most of the money from the four-year grant will be used to bolster training at child-care centers and preschools, and to provide incentives to improve programs, said Rep. Derrick Graham, the bill's lead sponsor.

"The end goal is that more children will be in a high-quality early childhood program," said Graham, D-Frankfort. "And as a result, they will be ready for kindergarten when the time comes."

President and CEO of Easter Seals of Western Kentucky, Danny Carroll told Local 6 he gets told frequently that the students there are prepared.

"We hear often from principals when kids get to school, they're some of the best prepared kids in the county and that's something we're proud of," he said. He said most of the credit should go to the teachers and staff who have very structured school days. He said in that way, the bill would be very beneficial. 

"I can see the need for that kind of structure in every center and I think parents would welcome that," he said. "I think it would raise the comfort level no matter where the child was if there were standards every center had to follow."

Kindergarten readiness remains a nagging problem for Kentucky education. A recent report indicated about half of kindergartners in the Bluegrass state aren't prepared to master essential skills in school.

Kindergarteners across the state were given the assessment. If found that 51 percent of those who started school in the fall of 2013 weren't ready.

Graham, chairman of the House Education Committee, said that better preparing more preschoolers for kindergarten would lessen the need for remedial schooling later on.

"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," he said.

Gov. Steve Beshear praised the House action, saying the measure would give families an easy-to-understand ratings system to assess the quality of early childhood programs in day cares and preschools.

"Every parent should be able to choose high-quality programs that fit the needs of their family," he said.

The Democratic governor urged the Republican-led Senate to "give this bill the consideration it deserves for the benefit of our youngest citizens."

Carroll said Easter Seals Child Development Center is already committed to the voluntary STARS for KIDS NOW rating system. He said it is a financial committment, too.

"It's going to be tough for the smaller center because of the cost associated. If there's funding there I think that would be great," he said. 

The rating system is based on child-to-caregiver ratios, child-care staff training, curriculum and regulatory compliance. It would apply to public and private early childhood programs.

Graham gave assurances that faith-based programs could continue offering the same curriculum.

Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, said he voted against the bill because it would remove the voluntary aspect of the rating program. He said he values the importance of early childhood education, but said his opposition "has to do with mandating participation in an evaluation system."

In speaking for the bill, Rep. Johnny Bell said it would improve education in Kentucky. The spin-off effect, he said, would be a stronger Kentucky economy that generates needed revenues for the state.

"How in God's name are we ever going to broaden our tax base if we do not educate our children," the Glasgow Democrat said.

Before passing the bill, the House narrowly defeated an amendment that would have discontinued the initiative once the federal grant money is depleted.

"Who's going to pay for it after the money runs out?" said Republican Rep. Jim DeCesare, who offered the amendment but later voted for the bill.

Graham said money from other sources has already been available to support the program.

The measure passed the House on a 79-11 vote. It now heads to the Senate.

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