Monday, November 4, 2013

Report cites critical need for more early-childhood education funding

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

Advocates for early-childhood education programs say a new national report shows a critical need for more preschool funding in Kansas, especially for programs that serve low-income families.

The report, "The First Eight Years," by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says nearly half of all children 8 and younger live in low-income households, putting them at higher risk of not developing the cognitive and social skills needed to succeed in school.

"In Kansas, investments in young children are at a critical juncture," said Shannon Costoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, a nonprofit group that lobbies for child welfare issues.

"We know that next year our state will receive more than $17 million from the tobacco arbitration agreement in addition to our annual tobacco settlement payment, and this report demonstrates why it's so important for Kansas to dedicate that money to early-childhood programs," Costoradis said.

The Casey Foundation report says that by age 8 most children in the United States are not on track in cognitive knowledge and skills.

Many also lag behind in areas of social and emotional development, physical well-being and engagement in school that are considered necessary for future success.

Those problems are especially pronounced among children from low-income households, the report says.

"For children to mature across all crucial areas of child development, they and their families need access not only to quality preschool, kindergarten and elementary school, but also to quality health care, including well-child care and treatment, regular developmental screening and intervention services," the report states.

Since 1999, Kansas has dedicated most of its revenue from a master settlement against the tobacco industry — usually around $55 million annually — to the Children's Initiative Fund for programs that promote children's health and welfare.

In recent years, however, there have been significant disputes between the tobacco industry and states involved in the lawsuit over how much the companies now owe. Those disputes have resulted in arbitration and settlements to states to make up for past underpayments.

State budget officials, however, have been reluctant to include those additional payments in their revenue projections. Last year, according to budget documents, tobacco payments to the state totaled $68 million — $12.2 million more than projected.

Much of that additional money, however, was transferred to the state general fund instead of the Children's Initiatives Fund.

The two-year budget that lawmakers approved this spring provides $56 million for the Children's Initiative Fund in the current fiscal year and $55 million in the following fiscal year, figures that do not reflect additional payments from arbitration.