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Kansas Parents As Teachers Funding Shift May Limit Some Families’ Access To Program

Courtesy Topeka USD 501
The Topeka USD 501 Parents as Teachers program plans to continue to offer events like Blockfest, shown here, to parents with young children who want to participate. But funding cuts may mean the number of events will be reduced.

Parents as Teachers is receiving the same amount of funding in Kansas as it did last year, but program administrators are concerned they will not be able to continue helping some families due to new rules.

The Legislature this year approved a switch in the funding source for Parents as Teachers from the Children’s Initiatives Fund, a state pool of money paid by tobacco companies, to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) , a federal fund best known for providing cash assistance for a limited time.

The amount of money is the same, but the federal money comes with more strings. To qualify for Parents as Teachers under TANF, families must meet one of 19 requirements that include factors like income, health and education levels.

The program, which was founded in Missouri in 1984, encourages parents to take an active role in their young children’s development by pairing them with parent educators who meet with them one-on-one and in group meetings.

Ryan Weir, a data coordinator for the Kansas State Department of Education, said the department isn’t sure of the number of current Parents as Teachers participants who won’t qualify, although he expects most will. The federal rules will go into effect when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

“It’s many of those same families that would already have been eligible,” he said.

Rebecca Clancy, coordinator of Parents as Teachers in Topeka USD 501, said staff members are talking with families about whether they will qualify. She is concerned that some families won’t want to provide documentation that they are struggling financially, even though the reason they qualified would be kept private, she said.

Parents as Teachers “has been so successful because there are no labels on it in the community,” she said.

The USD 501 Parents as Teachers program plans to continue to offer play groups and family networking events to any Topeka parents with young children who want to participate, Clancy said, but it may have to reduce the number of events due to cuts in the separate funding it receives from the Children’s Cabinet .

The program won’t be able to offer home visits to Topeka families that don’t qualify for TANF, she said, and may have to lay off two to four of its 14 parent educators due to the combination of cuts.

“We’re hoping to be able to stay with 12” educators, she said. “We’re trying to be very out of the box (in our) thinking, and creative.”

Colleen Riley is director of the early childhood, special education and title services team at Kansas State Department of Education. She said other states have made a similar move in using TANF funds. Programs still could use local funds to serve families that don’t qualify under the federal rules, she said.

“We are anticipating the same number of families will be served,” she said.

Wes Toppel, program supervisor for Parents as Teachers in the USD 636 North Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative, which includes 10 districts, said it isn’t quite that simple. Federal funds can’t be used to pay administrative costs or building rent, so those also must come out of the local dollars, limiting how much the programs can spend on other families, he said.

“It’s going to leave very little money to serve families that we want to continue to serve but that don’t qualify under TANF,” he said.

Even with more restrictions, Parents as Teachers likely won’t lack for families that could use its services.

Dean Zajic, state and federal funding coordinator for the Kansas State Department of Education, estimated that more than 30,000 families statewide would qualify based on their income, and more would qualify under other provisions, such as having a deployed parent or multiple births.

In a typical year, Parents as Teachers has enough funded slots for 8,000 to 9,000 Kansas families, he said. Local programs have some discretion in deciding whom to serve among qualifying families.

But Toppel said he considers it a misconception that parents automatically know how to interact with children based on their education and income. He and his wife both are school psychologists, he said, and they still were helped when a parent educator noticed one of their twin sons wasn’t rolling over as an infant and could benefit from physical therapy.

“We should be focused on finding the families that are at-risk, but we shouldn’t overlook the families that are a little higher on the income scale,” he said.

Laura Burton, a Topeka resident, said she and her husband, Matt, benefited greatly from a parent educator’s assistance. Their daughter, Amelia, had some trouble with eating and sleeping as an infant, and the educator helped them to sort through contradictory advice they received from friends and family, she said.

“Kids don’t come with an instruction manual,” she said. “It can be hard to know what’s real and what’s accurate, and what’s not.”

While Amelia didn’t have any developmental delays, Burton said she is concerned that the needs of children in other families might go unidentified if parents aren’t sure what to look for and pediatricians overlook them during brief office visits.

In addition, some parents of at-risk children may not seek assistance because they don’t want to provide documentation of a problem like domestic violence, she said.

“The only way we really know that is if we get the parent educators into the home,” she said.

Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC

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