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In 2019, Let’s Work Together for Kentucky Kids

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal

Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA) recently released its 2018 KIDS COUNT County Data Book. This is, in many ways, the report card for Kentucky’s kids on a state-wide, regional, and county-level basis.

Lots of data. Lots of good news. Lots of challenges.

Though we’ve seen improved rates in 93 out of 120 counties, nearly one in four Kentucky kids still live in poverty. We have a record number of children in foster care, fueled by parents struggling with addiction, and the number of children being raised by a relative outside of the foster care system nearly doubled over the last five years. After decades of progress, Kentucky’s rate of insured children has reached an all-time high at 97 percent. And, we’ve seen improvements in kindergarten readiness, yet nearly half of our littlest students are entering school not ready to learn.

The real question is, “So what?”

One notable Christmas gifts this year apparently is the Ostrich Pillow. Its pitch is simple – BE LIKE AN OSTRICH! Stick your head in this strangely shaped pillow, and the “world fades away.” That is an easy temptation, isn’t it? After all, ours is a divisive and polarized political environment, and I am going to hazard a wild guess that neither the special session nor the looming governor’s race will be catalysts for harmony! And it’s a short legislative session, and the budget is not on the table.

So many of the challenges are so complex and complicated that they appear intractable.

Well, down deep, you know we cannot give our kids ostrich pillows. The challenges they face will not simply fade away. That means that as our state lawmakers prepare to convene for the 2019 legislative session, these pressing challenges call for smart policies, innovative solutions, and focused attention on kid-focused priorities. And while it may seem daunting, it is very achievable because if there is one arena in which common gumption, common ground, and common good solutions abound, it is around kids.

Led by Senate President Stivers and Speaker Osborne – as well as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle – our state leaders showed this to be true in 2018. As an example, the bipartisan team of Representatives David Meade and Joni Jenkins led a bi-cameral effort to pass seminal child welfare reform. And the General Assembly, working with Governor Bevin, made critical investments in the state budget to help children impacted by abuse and neglect.

As we approach that 2019 session, there are a myriad of lessons from the KIDS COUNT data that can and should inform kids’ champions in Frankfort. These include:

  • The rural and urban divide may be a real element in the political algebra of winning elections, but it has little bearing on the state of the state’s kids. While the zip code in which a kid lives can impact their outcomes, the KIDS COUNT results also show many common themes regardless of county. Be it in education or in health, in family economics or family structure, I hope legislators realize that common solutions for kids go beyond geography and that shared commonality should be a catalyst for broad-based support that transcends the conventional urban versus rural thinking.
  • Any shot at solving the really daunting issues for kids in Kentucky is going to require a different way of doing business because these challenges don’t fit into nicely packaged and defined boxes. As an example, reforms to the criminal justice system and creative approaches to tackling the addiction epidemic go hand in hand with efforts to strengthen families so they can stay together and fewer children end up in foster and kinship care. Likewise, the critical issue of school safety, of course, includes looking at building improvements and the appropriate role of law enforcement within those schoolhouses. But school safety experts, educators and parents alike will attest to the imperative role that relationships with students and school-based behavioral health services must play in every school in Kentucky if we are ever to truly achieve a safe environment for every student. This kind of cross-sector collaboration – be that in how a piece of legislation is crafted or how dollars flow – calls for new ways of doing business in Frankfort and in every county seat across Kentucky.
  • Big picture reform works! One of the more encouraging trendlines in the KIDS COUNT book this year is that we’ve been able to safely reduce the use of harmful incarceration of youth while protecting public safety. That didn’t just happen. In fact, these results can be traced back to the good work of Senator Whitney Westerfield and Secretary John Tilley, when he was serving as a Democratic state representative. Working across chambers and across political parties, those legislators and their colleagues crafted reforms, which transformed how we respond when kids get in trouble. And those alternative responses should connect kids and families to community services that address the root causes of behavior, whether that be abuse, neglect or family violence, and support the child’s healthy development to get them on track to becoming a successful adult. Changing how we do business is hard work, but it pays off for young people and community safety.

For every elected leader and for every Kentuckian, there is no better common gumption, common ground, and common good agenda than working to improve the lives of Kentucky’s kids. Let’s do just that in 2019.

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