By Mira Ball and Lawrence W. Hager Jr.
Kentucky's lawmakers have created a strong foundation for the state's early childhood education and development programs. Now they have the opportunity to ensure continued and meaningful progress in this vital area in the 2014-2016 budget.
Quality public preschool was part of the reforms enacted by the General Assembly in 1990. In 2000, the legislature created KIDS NOW, a package of initiatives to support Kentucky's youngest citizens. That package included the HANDS (Health Access Nurturing Development Services) program that has helped thousands of parents learn how to make good decisions for their children.
These investments are critical to moving Kentucky forward, and generate returns that will build a vibrant economy for our future. Early childhood is a critical time to help children develop the literacy and math skills that will ensure their academic success; to close achievement gaps; and to set children on the path toward developing what have been called the social, or executive, skills of working with others, following directions, completing tasks and communicating effectively.
These skills are particularly important for the development of a high-quality work force that can compete in a global economy.
In most families, grandparents, friends, trusted neighbors or church members show a new parent how to care for their child. But some new mothers and fathers simply don't have this support or help. Children don't arrive with an instruction manual. So, the HANDS program matches parents with trained professionals who provide information, coaching and support during pregnancy and in the child's crucial earliest years.
The program has helped Kentucky families, and the state, by dramatically decreasing infant mortality and premature birth rates, reducing non-emergency use of emergency rooms and the incidence of child neglect. Mothers who participate in HANDS are more likely to read to their children and take them for medical check-ups. They also are more likely to go back to school or work themselves.
This kind of progress can be sustained or accelerated if Gov. Steve Beshear's budget recommendations pass in the General Assembly. The governor's budget:
■ Replaces funds in the child care subsidy to restore access to child care for thousands of children, allowing their parents to continue to work.
■ Sustains and expands funding for the HANDS program to serve more families in all 120 counties.
■ Invests additional funds in preschool, increasing eligibility for participation from 150 percent of the federal poverty level to 160 percent, allowing 5,100 more children to attend.
Investments in early childhood are investments in the future. We hope the General Assembly will continue its strong leadership by making these investments for the good of the state and all citizens.
Mira Ball is chief financial officer for Ball Homes in Lexington. Lawrence W. Hager Jr. is president of The Lawrence & Augusta Hager Educational Foundation in Owensboro. Both are members of Business Leaders for a Strong Start.