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Published in Print: April 5, 2000, as Kentucky Legislature Passes Early-Childhood Initiative

Kentucky Legislature Passes Early-Childhood Initiative

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In the final days of its regular session, the Kentucky legislature last week passed a wide-ranging early-childhood initiative that proponents hailed as a landmark effort in a state that has gotten low marks in national ratings of children's well-being.

The plan calls for using 25 percent of the state's settlement money from tobacco companies—or nearly $56 million over two years—on efforts to improve the quality of child care and health services for the state's 257,000 children under the age of 6. Gov. Paul E. Patton was expected to sign the bill into law this week.

"This is the biggest contribution we have ever made to children from zero to 3," said Rep. Thomas J. Burch, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the House.

The early-childhood legislation passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, but not without a fight over how best to use the funds allocated to the initiative. A central issue was a provision that would allow private child-care centers to receive funding.

"The very greatest difference came with the issue of subsidizing child-care centers," said Sen. Vernie McGaha, a Republican.

In the end, the final version closely resembled the proposal originally advanced by Gov. Patton. That plan was modeled on the recommendations of a task force that the Democratic governor appointed last year to study the state's child-care needs.

The legislation's final draft would create local committees to screen proposals for state grants, and private centers would be eligible to apply. It also would create an authority in the governor's office of early-childhood development to oversee programs and make the final decisions about awarding grants.

In addition, the plan calls for establishing a state system for rating child-care centers and preschools, based on such factors as teacher-student ratios, staff size, and teacher training. Other provisions would underwrite health initiatives such as home visits to new parents, universal vision screening for newborns, and hearing tests for new public school students.

Prevention vs. Remediation

While the plan was being considered by the Senate appropriations committee, Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly recommended using some of the early-childhood money to expand an existing reading initiative for children in the grades 1-3. But the Senate leader, a Republican, backed away from the idea before the bill came to the floor for a vote.

Kim F. Townley, the executive director of the governor's office of early-childhood development, said that keeping the funding targeted to preschoolers would pay off.

"We are talking about prevention instead of remediation," she said.

According to the 1999 Kids Count Data Book (requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader), compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kentucky ranks 41st among the states in the general well-being of its children. The state child-care task force saw its mission as improving that standing.

To address concerns about sustaining the programs once the tobacco money runs out, the bill would require the legislature to approve funding for the initiative when that occurs. The state expects to receive a total of $25 million to $30 million annually from the tobacco settlement for about 25 years after initial payments totaling $224 million over the next two years.

Forty-five other states are set to start receiving money this summer from the 1998 settlement of $206 billion from the nation's five largest tobacco companies. ("Budget Proposal Finds Many Ways To Boost Education," Feb. 24, 2000.) At least some other states, including Maine and Oklahoma, are planning to use proceeds from the settlement to pay for child-care and preschool programs, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Vol. 19, Issue 30, Page 21

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