“I feel safe and cared for, mommy.” “I feel healthy and nourished, daddy.” “I am ready for school!” These are not likely statements that I would hear from my 2 and 4 year old children, but I might hear – “I love you mama,” “Hug me dada,” a round of the a b c’s, or funny stories about their best friends, Henry and Finn. These things melt my heart on a daily basis and give me hope for the future. They mean that my young son and daughter feel safe, loved, and nurtured and I know they are learning at their school.
As an advocate, it pains me to think that things that I take for granted are daily struggles for countless other mothers in Kentucky. Not all children have access to what my kids do – quality child care, parents who are able to afford basic necessities like food and clothes, access to health care, plenty of reading materials around the home, and a support system their parents can access when we need a break from the inevitable chaos.
All young children in Kentucky need these things in order to be ready to succeed in school and life. Their first five years are the most critical, as 85 percent of their brains develop during that time. The truth is that time flies and young children are completely dependent on decisions adults make – primarily by their parents/guardians but also by policymakers who decide what choices are available for families.
Wisely, in 2000, Kentucky lawmakers unanimously decided to designate 25 percent of the Master Tobacco Settlement dollars, which was a new pot of money, to fund a set of evidence-based programs designed to prevent negative outcomes for young children – it is called KIDS NOW. This bold decision placed the Commonwealth at the forefront nationally in early childhood development circles.
Our investment in Kentucky’s children through the KIDS NOW initiative has paid off, with all kinds of measurable results in the last decade including: declining infant mortality rates, over 40,000 immunizations for uninsured children, fewer expulsions from child care for children with mental health challenges, and no children on the waiting list for child care subsidies. This is just to name a few.
However, forecasts show that funds from the Master Settlement Agreement are a declining source of revenue in Kentucky. This was predicted from the start. The goal of the settlement was to reduce smoking and it worked. That is a good thing. Yet, as smoking rates decline, funds for these key programs also declines.
Due to the settlement dollars Kentucky policymakers have not had to make hard decisions about how to fund these successful KIDS NOW services for 11 years. Those services include things like home visiting programs for at-risk families, health screenings, immunizations for underinsured children, early childhood mental health trainings, substance abuse treatment for pregnant and post-partum women, and child care subsidies.
However, their luck is running out. Come January, policymakers will need to figure out ways to replace the lost dollars in the next biennial budget so that we can continue making critical investments in our children’s future. The results are clear – focused attention on children 0-5 years old pays off.
Just like my own children, every child in Kentucky deserves the opportunity to enter school ready to engage in and benefit from early learning experiences that best promote their success — ready to grow, ready to learn, ready to succeed!