Kansas equity panel turns attention to racial disparities in childcare, early childhood education

By: - May 22, 2021 12:45 pm

The Commission on Racial Equity and Justice were joined by Melissa Rooker of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet to discuss ways the two groups could address issues present in early childhood services. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A panel focused on promoting racial equity in Kansas has homed in on child care and early childhood education as keys to addressing economic and social disparities among marginalized communities in the state.

The Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice chose to focus work done by its three subcommittees on addressing the social determinants of health — the social and economic factors impacting group differences in health — and their role in racial injustice in Kansas. Each subcommittee raised inadequate access to child care or the need to enhance the workforce as a point of interest.

Melissa Rooker, executive director for the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, joined the commission Thursday to discuss overlapping initiatives to improve the health, well-being and educational outcomes of Kansas children. She said a point of major concern was average wages for early childhood workers, which sit at $9.25.

“It is a profession that requires enhanced training to provide high-quality care for our kids during those crucial early years when their brains are developing and setting them up for a lifetime of experiences,” Rooker said.

The racial equity commission is divided into three subcommittees — health, education and economics — all contributing to two reports for the governor and Legislature. A preliminary report is expected early in the summer containing recommendations from work done thus far, and a final report will be submitted in December.

The commission was established in summer 2020 in response to public demand for increased focus on issues of racial justice surrounding criminal justice and policing. The panel focused its first report on this area before shifting to a broader set of issues in 2021.

A recommendation from the commission’s 2020 report discussed again during the second year of work is the need for increased data collection around race and ethnicity. Rooker noted she was unable to provide the commission information on the breakdown of child care workers by race because that data is not available in Kansas.

Increasing racial diversity in this sector is a desperate need, said Shannon Portillo, co-chair of the commission.

“I know locally here in (Lawrence) we have said that we want to see more representation of black, Indigenous people of color in child care or in early childhood education,” Portillo said. “This is an area where, from the higher education perspective, we often get asked to think about certificate programs, degree completion programs for members of the early childhood workforce. It’s really tough because those are not living wage jobs.”

Portillo urged the commission to consider how to balance the goal of having this highly educated workforce with racial diversity and adequate pay.

Commissioner Anthony Lewis, superintendent of Lawrence Public Schools, touted a local effort to convert a former elementary school into an early childhood center. He said one initiative to address workforce needs in the area was a “grow your own” program.

“We have some early childhood development classes that are being offered at our Lawrence College and Career Center,” Lewis said. “We’re currently preparing about 25 students to complete their CDA — Child Development Associate — certification this spring.”

Lewis expressed interest in collecting more data around these types of programs and certification opportunities around the state as a method of addressing these workforce shortfalls.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.