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Governor's Office Declines To Support Early Childhood Grant

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is not ready to support the Kansas Children’s Cabinet’s attempt to win a federal grant aimed at bolstering early childhood education.

The governor’s decision to withhold support for the grant application was explained to members of Children's Cabinet in a memo last week from Janice Smith, the group’s executive director.

Smith wrote that on Sept. 11, Brownback administration officials let her know that it would be “unwise to move forward” in applying for a Preschool Development Grant without first conferring with the Kansas Legislature.

The news halted the application process because grant proposals are due in four weeks; the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 12, 2015.

The governor’s office, Smith said, instead encouraged the Cabinet to measure legislators’ interest in 2015 so that “if another round of grants is announced,” their willingness to support an application would be known in advance.

The application process also requires a letter of support from the governor’s office, which, Smith indicated, would not be forthcoming.

The Children’s Cabinet is a 15-member board charged with advising lawmakers on how best to spend monies generated by the state’s master settlement agreement with the nation’s tobacco companies — roughly $50 million annually — on early childhood development programs.

Cabinet members also oversee the administration of several grant programs.

The Children’s Cabinet applied for the early childhood grant in 2010 but did not receive any funds.

Smith on Tuesday said administration officials also expressed concerns about not having enough time to put together the level of interagency collaboration needed to submit a “strong, competitive proposal” and not knowing how much money the state would have to commit to spending if it were awarded one of the grants.

She called the decision the prerogative of the governor’s office.

Eileen Hawley, a spokesperson for Brownback, said the governor did not tell the Children’s Cabinet not to apply for one of the grants. Instead, she wrote in an email, his office had noted: “Any application for the grant would require a significant funding commitment and since the power of the purse lies with the Legislature, we believe it is important that the Legislature be involved in such a discussion.”

The level of funding to which the state would need to commit was not spelled out in the grant application. In fact, the application specifically said that no cost sharing or matching is required. However, it said applicants that can obtain matching funds “may be awarded additional points.”

If Kansas were to apply, it would be in competition with 35 other states for grants totaling $160 million a year for up to four years.

Kansas’ possible share of the pie: Up to $15 million a year for four years. The money would be spent on expanding and enhancing preschool programs throughout the state.

The grants are part of a $640 million initiative within Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion education reform package introduced by President Obama in 2009.

News of the governor’s decision disappointed some child advocates.

“Kansas, with the help of the Children’s Cabinet and their multiple partners — KU Center for Public Partnerships and Research, the state Department of Education, the Department for Children and Families, Child Care Aware of Kansas, and the Kansas Head Start Association — would have made a dynamite team for putting together a quality and competitive application for bringing additional resources into Kansas,” Erick Vaughn, executive director at the Kansas Head Start Association, wrote in an email.

“Kansas’ chances would have been good if we’d applied,” he said.

Vaughn said it is unlikely that an additional round of grants will be available after 2015.

“It is not clear if states will be given this opportunity again, which makes Gov. Brownback’s decision to not apply that much more disappointing,” he said. “This means Kansas will stay in place while other states take advantage of this funding opportunity and make advancements in increasing the number of quality preschool experiences for at-risk children.”

Amanda Adkins, chair of the Children’s Cabinet, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Earlier this month, Brownback’s office notified Jonathan Freiden, a member of the Children’s Cabinet, that he would not be appointed to a second four-year term.

Freiden attributed the decision to his criticism of Brownback for proposing to eliminate the state’s Early Head Start programs, diverting tobacco revenues to the state general fund and using federal anti-poverty monies to underwrite an administration plan for improving fourth-grade reading scores.

Hawley disagreed, saying the appointment decision was driven by the governor’s wanting to “engage as many Kansans as possible” in the work of various state commissions.

Freiden said the decision not to apply for a Race to the Top grant was part of election-year politics.

“This is about the governor and his people not wanting to risk being seen taking money from Washington and touching Obama at a time when they’re running against someone they’re painting as an Obama liberal,” he said. “They’re putting politics above kids.”

Freiden was referring to Paul Davis, Brownback’s Democratic challenger in the November general election.

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