Any state that wants more college graduates cannot scrimp on early childhood.
Yet, despite Kentucky's desire to raise college attainment, not even a meager $15 million expansion of early childhood education is making it through the legislature.
In an extremely austere budget, Gov. Steve Beshear eked out $15 million to expand pre-school to an additional 4,400 4-year-olds.
The House trimmed the increase to $7.5 million and channeled the remaining $7.5 million into existing programs such as family resource centers and gifted and talented education.
The Senate reduced the increase in pre-school to zero.
The rationale: Why expand one program when other education programs and almost all the rest of state government are being deeply cut?
That might make sense if we were talking about anything other than early childhood. Experiences in the first years of life build the foundation for almost all education success and failure.
In areas of high poverty, especially, early intervention is critical.
This session of the General Assembly has spent a lot of energy on how to raise college graduation rates among the work force in Southeastern Kentucky, a high-poverty area.
One of the best ways to produce more college graduates would be improving the high school graduation rate. Perhaps even better would be producing high school graduates who are prepared for college.
That's according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems which was commissioned to analyze alternatives for increasing education levels.
Of the high school graduates in the 12 counties in Southeastern Kentucky that were studied, just 29.2 percent are ready for college-level work, according to state data.
That's lower than the state average, which is nothing to brag about at 37.7 percent of graduating seniors ready for college or career.
The best money that can be spent on dropout prevention is before children even get to school. Kids who enter kindergarten and first grade behind may never catch up and only fall further behind.
Budget negotiators should find some spare change in the $18.5 billion biennial budget for pre-school. It would fall short of need, but at least we would be moving in the right direction.
Beyond this awful budget, the legislature must commit to early childhood or see education gains stall out.
The early childhood programs launched in 2000, including one that works directly with at-risk families and infants, are funded with tobacco settlement revenues that are dwindling with cigarette sales.
The excellent goals set by the legislature for education will be meaningless without the funding follow-through.