Mira Ball: Kentucky should recommit to children, restore funding for early care programs

Here's a great idea for building a stronger workforce: Invest in early care and education programs.

The relationship between these two areas is stronger than you might think. Research, in Kentucky and across the nation, has concluded that investing in quality early care and education programs yields returns of better education, better health, less criminal behavior and lower costs to society as a whole — all part of a foundation for personal and economic growth.

Kentucky has had a pre-school program in our public schools since the 1990 passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Families with incomes of up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for the program.

The state also has had strong programs in place for younger children and their families, created as part of the Kids Now initiative in 2000.

But both must become much higher priorities on the state's public agenda. Expanding eligibility for the preschool program to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, for example, would give 16,000 more children access to an early, quality education.

Making a significant difference before a child is ready for preschool is another area of great opportunity. Kentucky has a wonderful program already in place to support pregnant women, new parents and young children. The problem: funding for this forward-looking program is in decline.

Known as HANDS (Health Access Nurturing Development Services), the voluntary program matches parents with trained professionals who make regular visits to their homes to provide information and support during pregnancy and up to the child's second birthday. Parents with high risk factors such as poverty, teen pregnancy and low education levels qualify, regardless of family income.

The home visitors focus on medical needs, safety, developmental screening, basic care, social, emotional and brain development and strong parent-child relationships. More than 10,000 families have been served each year since the program's creation in 2000.

The results are impressive: fewer premature births, developmental delays and emergency room visits; improved education; increased employment for families, and a dramatically lower (70 percent less than statewide) infant mortality rate.

HANDS and other early childhood programs are funded in large part with 25 percent of the money Kentucky receives under the tobacco settlement, brokered in 1998 between states and major tobacco companies to resolve lawsuits

As smoking has declined, the tobacco settlement funds also have diminished, and Kids Now funding has slipped from a high of $30 million to $24.3 million in the current fiscal year. That means fewer families are served by HANDS and other programs, such as quality child care and immunizations.

It also means that Kentucky is attracting fewer federal funds. Many of the families served by HANDS are eligible for Medicaid, which brings federal matching funds to the state to help serve more Kentuckians.

Kentucky has been fortunate to have the tobacco settlement money to invest in early care programs over the past decade, but the time has now come for the state to provide a stable source of funding to ensure these programs will be sustained in the years ahead.

Gov. Steve Beshear and the 2012 Kentucky General Assembly, in crafting the 2012-14 budget, can make an investment of just a few million tax dollars that will bring a proven return to Kentucky and its families. I hope they won't miss this opportunity to ensure a stronger future for our state.