By Mira Ball and Lawrence W. Hager, Jr.
Your Voice Contributors
Kentuckyâ€™s lawmakers have created a strong foundation for the stateâ€™s early childhood education and development programs. Now, they have the opportunity to ensure continued and meaningful progress in this vital area in the budget they will enact for 2014-2016.
Quality public preschool was part of the education reforms enacted by the General Assembly in 1990. In 2000, the legislature created KIDS NOW, a package of initiatives to support Kentuckyâ€™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 are the kinds of investments that are critical to moving Kentucky forward, and they 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 before they emerge; 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 assignments and communicating effectively.
These skills are particularly important for the development of a high-quality workforce that can successfully compete in a global economy.
Quality child care and preschool are key parts of this effort. So is the HANDS program that provides support for vulnerable families who ask to receive it.
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 donâ€™t have this support or help. Children donâ€™t arrive with an instruction manual. So, the HANDS program matches parents with trained professionals who provide information, coaching and support during pregnancy and throughout the childâ€™s earliest years, a critical development period.
The program has helped Kentucky families â€“ and the state as a whole â€“ by dramatically decreasing the infant mortality rate and premature births; reducing non-emergency use of emergency rooms; and reducing 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 â€“ and even accelerated â€“ if Gov. Steve Beshearâ€™s budget recommendations receive final passage in the General Assembly. The governorâ€™s proposed budget:
replaces funds that have been lost in the stateâ€™s 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 Kentucky 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, in truth, investments in the future as they put our youngest Kentuckians on a path to becoming adults who succeed in life and work. We hope the General Assembly will continue its strong leadership by making these investments for the good of the state and all of its citizens.
Mira Ball is chief financial officer for Ball Homes in Lexington. Larry Hager is president of The Lawrence & Augusta Hager Educational Foundation in Owensboro. Both are members of Business Leaders for a Strong Start, an initiative of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.