25 Years of Kentucky KIDS COUNT

2015_KidsCount_thumb1990.

Nelson Mandela was released from jail. The Berlin Wall fell. Operation Desert Shield began in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Microsoft released Windows. The first web page was posted on this new concept called the world-wide web.

Fox aired a new type of programming called The Simpsons. Home Alone was setting the box office on fire.

And Kentucky Youth Advocates released the first ever Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book.

Since 1990, we have collected state and local data to show how kids in Kentucky are faring because of our firmly held belief: What gets measured gets changed.

So, here we are 25 years later. What has changed for kids in Kentucky?

Fortunately, we have seen a series of governors who worked alongside members of the legislature to make a difference for Kentucky’s youngest citizens.

In 1990, the General Assembly passed, and Governor Wallace Wilkinson signed, the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). KERA was, at the time, the most sweeping educational reform act in the history of the nation. It totally revamped Kentucky’s education system in the areas of finance, governance, and curriculum and introduced new supports for at-risk students.

In the early 1990’s, Governor Brereton Jones fulfilled a major promise of KERA by championing funding for the creation of Family Resource and Youth Services Centers to help address barriers to learning like poverty, poor health, and stress that keep children from being able to succeed in school. Today, those centers are the doorway to support for over 600,000 children and their families across the Commonwealth.

During his eight-year tenure (1996-2003), Governor Paul Patton oversaw important investments in children such as the Kinship Care Program, which kept children who couldn’t stay safely with their parents out of foster care and in the homes of grandparents and other relatives. Patton also ensured that 25 percent of Kentucky’s Tobacco Settlement dollars were invested in children through things like a successful home visiting program for first-time parents called HANDS.

In 2006, Governor Ernie Fletcher supported an effort that literally saved lives by signing into law a graduated driver’s license. As a result, we have seen a steady drop in the teen death rate as fewer teens die in car crashes.

And due to actions by Governor Steve Beshear and the General Assembly over the last eight years, Kentucky kids have won because of a fundamental reform of juvenile justice, a steady stream of actions to protect children from abuse, and dramatically increased access to health coverage.

There is no question that decisions made in Frankfort matter to children. Good public policy should ensure that a child’s opportunity for success is not limited by the zip code she lives in, the color of her skin, or the structure of her family.

Current KIDS COUNT data reveals that much work remains. Over one in five Kentucky births are to mothers who smoked during pregnancy, making those infants more likely to be born preterm or at low birthweights. Almost one out of two fourth graders cannot read at a proficient level, making them less likely to graduate on time and more likely to struggle as adults. And one in four Kentucky children live in poverty, placing them at immediate risk and stifling opportunities for later success.

We at Kentucky Youth Advocates and our partners in the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children believe policy solutions that promote thriving communities, strong families, and successful kids will help us move the needle in the right direction over the next 25 years.

Solutions will help ensure children are treated like kids; children are protected from harm and live in a loving family; families can earn enough to make ends meet and adequately provide for children; and communities abound with opportunities for quality education, good jobs, and to be healthy.

We’ve come a long way. We have a long way to go. And we look forward to working with our newly elected Governor and the Kentucky General Assembly to make our Commonwealth the best place in America to be young.

View the 2015 County Data Book and download a PDF copy here. You can also place an order for print editions of the book at no charge here. View and download all 120 Kentucky county profiles here. Want to view even more county, state, and national indicators of child well-being? Visit the KIDS COUNT Data Center.

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier-Journal on November 15th. Read it, and other KIDS COUNT-related op-eds, online here

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