This post originally appeared as an op-ed in The Courier Journal on January 15, 2021.

Oxpeckers and zebras.

Oxpeckers are small African birds which count on zebras as their key nutritional sources, eating the ticks that cluster on zebras.

And zebras? Well, they depend on oxpeckers as pest control agents. The oxpeckers also make a hissing sound whenever they sense a threat, acting as the zebras’ early warning security system to escape to safer locales from impending predators.

This is synergy in nature.

The Oxford Dictionary defines synergy as the interaction of two or more organizations or agents to produce a combined effort greater than the sum of their separate effects. Synergy is a key element in many arenas beyond nature. Synergy is a key to creative success in business and public health, gourmet cooking, and engineering. NFL teams build their rosters around synergy, and churches are skilled at theological synergy as new faith communities blossom.

Synergy is a game changer, and synergy can change the game in Frankfort for Kentucky’s children.

Despite the perception that a canyon separates the Governor and the General Assembly, there is inordinate potential for real synergy when it comes to kids and the state budget. I am not naïve – there are very real and fundamental differences on both policy issues and stylistic considerations in Frankfort. But there is also a myriad of common ground budget commitments to our young people that are just as real and would support kids in the immediate and set up pandemic recovery efforts for the future.

A realistic assessment of the Frankfort context reveals that many shared arenas simply will have to wait. Limited time and limited resources for a one-year continuation budget in a short legislative session mean that funding for universal pre-Kindergarten and much needed fundamental criminal justice reform will have to wait until the two-year budget and a longer session in 2022.

But there is a treasure trove of priorities that can aggressively move ahead in budget negotiations with the power of synergy right now. Those opportunities are around commitments to children that Governor Beshear, House Speaker Osborne, and Senate President Stivers share both with intellect and with heart. Word count limits my ability to share the full portrait of that potential synergistic budget for kids, but let me highlight some examples:

Due to the groundbreaking reporting of The Courier Journal’s own Debby Yetter, readers will already know that Kentucky – tragically – leads this nation in the rate of children who are abused and neglected. Yet, there is real synergy between legislative champions and the Governor around protecting children. As an example, a realistic focus would be around funding Kentucky’s forensic pediatricians, who are the medical heroes who investigate cases where child abuse has been suspected, even having resulted in a fatality. Currently, under the auspices of the Universities of Louisville and Kentucky and private support from entities like Kosair Charities, there are only five such pediatricians to provide these critical services for the entire commonwealth. Synergy can mean children having access to the best care in order to recover and heal and for their case to be investigated, with the modest state budget investment to double the number of these professionals and their teams.

There is no question that the pandemic has created complex trauma-related issues for children across the commonwealth, which means that mental health services in schools are an imperative. The General Assembly created a national delivery model in its 2019 Senate Bill 1, the omnibus School Safety and Resiliency Act. And the Beshear Administration, led by Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Friedlander and Lt. Governor Coleman, have shown a demonstrable shared commitment. School districts can now utilize a 3:1 federal funding match for necessary behavioral health screenings, counseling, and immunizations for Medicaid eligible students within the school building or virtual school setting – a synergistic deal for schools and families! Synergy in Frankfort can create a dedicated funding stream to leverage those dollars in the 2021-22 school year.

Other synergy options abound. Just imagine a state budget that would incorporate closing the remaining gap in child health coverage, along with the gaps in infrastructure that create a deep digital divide impacting children in our cities to our most rural communities. Just imagine a budget that would not only invest in child care and real supports for kinship families, but also makes critical investments in family preservation and substance use treatment programs that allow families to stay together safely while parents work to achieve sobriety and access mental health and parenting supports.

None of these ideas are budget busters, and each one has a demonstrable synergistic track record of a strong return on investment from both a fiscal and a policy lens.

It will take guts to work together in this climate pockmarked by bifurcation. Our kids need Frankfort action marked instead by synergy before that final gavel in the spring.

Oxpeckers and zebras do it – so can our donkeys and elephants in Frankfort!

Dr. Terry Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. View the 2021 Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children. Sign up for updates on Children’s Advocacy Week – a series of virtual events February 1-5.