Nebraska's 2014 legislative session adjourned Sine Die on April 17. During the short session, the Legislature reviewed hundreds of bills, many of them dealing with contentious issues like Medicaid expansion, prison reform and tax reform. In total, the Legislature introduced 466 bills. In addition, 393 bills carried over from the previous session. Of the bills introduced this session, 112 became law.
Despite debating bills covering a wide range of diverse topics, quality early childhood education remained an important topic of discussion for Nebraska senators. As evidence, observers need look no further than the mainline budget bill. The bill allocates $3.2 million in grants to schools to start or expand high-quality early childhood education opportunities in their communities, as well as dollars targeted to ensure program quality and accountability. The budget also makes a critical investment in both parents and the early childhood workforce by addressing social and emotional development in children who exhibit challenging behaviors.
Highlighted here are bills that most significantly impact early childhood education in Nebraska. Visit our Current Legislation page for a comprehensive list of all bills impacting children ages 0-8 introduced this session.
Budgeting for the Early Years
An overwhelming body of research indicates that the best public investments are in the area of early childhood education. This year the Legislature and Governor continued to recognize the value of early childhood education by increasing its investments in two Nebraska initiatives. These investments come through LB905, the mainline budget bill approved by the Governor on March 29.
LB905 adds $3.2 million to the Nebraska Department of Education's early childhood grant program. School districts use early childhood grants to establish early learning opportunities that close the achievement gap for children ages 3-5 who are at-risk of failing in school. Although technical assistance funding for the early childhood grant program was line-item vetoed by the Governor, the Legislature overrode the veto and reinstated the funds, which will allow NDE to work closely with schools to ensure the program maintains a high level of accountability.
The bill also invests $400,000 in Nurturing Healthy Behaviors, which helps parents and early childhood providers support social and emotional development in children, especially those exhibiting challenging behaviors. Both of these investments are evaluated annually and promise significant fiscal and social benefits for our state.
Strengthening Children's Health and School Success
LB276 recognizes the role schools can play in helping parents meet their students' basic health needs. It allows schools to be reimbursed for additional health care services directly through Medicaid. Previously, Medicaid only directly reimbursed schools for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. The additional services include mental health services, nursing services, rehabilitation services, hearing and language disorder services and vision-related services. The bill also restructures the Nebraska Department of Education and school district funding for the administrative costs of these services, to ensure that schools have the capacity to provide the care. The Governor signed LB276 on April 22.
Maintaining Quality Child Care for those Climbing the Economic Ladder
On April 2 the Governor signed into law LB359. The bill changes eligibility requirements for the child care subsidy, allowing 10% of a current recipient's gross income to be disregarded in determining ongoing program eligibility. In its final version, LB359 also changes asset limitations for child care subsidy, medical assistance, Aid to Dependent Children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, allowing families who receive these supports greater opportunity to pursue higher education in their attempt to work toward self-sufficiency. When coupled with the QRIS roll-out later this year, LB359 will allow more families climbing the economic ladder to find and afford quality child care.
Building the Foundation for School Success, Good Life Choices and Healthy Relationships
The skills needed to succeed in school, make good life choices and build healthy relationsh ips are developed in early childhood. Proper development of these skills, like self-control, confidence and the capacity to communicate, requires child care providers, school teachers and parents to know how to encourage positive behaviors and address challenging behaviors as they occur. LB944 provides funding to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to expand an existing program that provides helpful training for parents, child care providers (home-based, church-based, non-profit and for-profit) and elementary school teachers who work with children birth to age 8 with challenging behaviors. LB944 is included in the budget bill approved by the Governor.
Protecting Current Lottery Allocations for Early Childhood
LB967 was part of a trio of bills introduced this legislative session concerning lottery funding for early childhood education. Among other provisions, the bill allows lottery allocations to the Early Childhood Education Endowment Cash Fund (Sixpence), the Nebraska Department of Education early childhood preschool grant program and the School District Reorganization Fund to remain in place after June 30, 2016. Stable funding will allow school districts to provide robust, high-quality early childhood opportunities that close the achievement gap for at-risk children. In its final version, LB967 also directs the Early Childhood Training Center to approve training for child care licensing and Step Up to Quality. Governor Heineman approved LB967 on April 2.
Encouraging Schools to Invest in Early Childhood
Like LB967, LB984 sought to protect any lottery funds committed to the early childhood education preschool grant program and the Early Childhood Education Endowment Cash Fund (Sixpence) by allowing them to remain in place past June 30, 2016. The bill also proposed a one-time appropriation of $4.6 million in general funds to the early childhood preschool grant program for FY 2014-15, with any unused portions rolling over to FY 2015-16 and 2016-17.
While LB984 did not advance out of the Education Committee, LB905 incorporated the appropriation for the early childhood grant program, with some monies dedicated to grant program technical assistance. The Governor approved $3.2 million directed for additional program grants to school districts to start or expand high-quality early childhood education opportunities in their communities.
Improving Child Care Health and Safety Inspections
While all licensed Nebraska child care providers must be inspected regularly, Family Child Care Home I providers were previously allowed to obtain licenses before undergoing basic health and safety inspections. Specifically, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services had 60 days to complete the inspection after the license was granted. While a significant majority of providers passed these inspections without incident, about 5% of licenses were granted to homes with unsafe and unsanitary conditions that were not easily remedied. LB1050 closes this loophole. The bill protects children and provides families the assurance that all licensed child care providers meet basic health and safety standards by requiring pre-licensure inspections of Family Child Care Home I providers. LB1050 is cost-neutral. Governor Heineman signed LB1050 into law on April 10.
Instituting a Statewide Vision for Education in Nebraska
Approved by the Governor on April 2, LB1103 directs the Legislature's Education Committee to conduct a strategic-planning process, with the goal of developing a statewide vision for education in Nebraska. The process will include gathering information in various ways, such as holding a minimum of three public hearings and possibly holding other meetings, work sessions and focus groups. The vision developed must contain aspirational goals, visionary objectives, meaningful priorities and practical strategies. The strategic-planning process offers a significant opportunity for Nebraska to recognize how early childhood education contributes to school readiness and reduces the achievement gap, and consider early childhood among the state's strategic investments in education.