Early-Years Initiatives Get Lawmakers' Attention

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The names are all similar--Children First, Family and Children First Initiative, Smart Start, Healthy Start.

And, while the goals of these state early-childhood programs range from raising immunization rates to expanding preschool services, all of the efforts signal a movement among state leaders to make the needs of babies and young children a priority.

Over the past decade and particularly in recent years, numerous lawmakers and governors have proposed initiatives aimed at improving children's chances of succeeding in school while giving parents the tools to provide children with the care and stimulation they need during the early years. Next month's annual meeting of the National Governors' Association, in fact, will focus on early childhood development.

"A number of states have increased early-childhood programs, especially for low-income families," said Scott Groginsky, who tracks child-care and early-childhood-education policy at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. "Legislators have really been at the forefront of this issue."

Some activity, observers say, has been sparked by recent brain research, which points to important developmental milestones during the first three years of life. ("Clinton Announces 5 Child-Care, Early-Years Initiatives," April 23, 1997.)

Linda McCart, the executive director of the Ohio Family and Children First Initiative, said she also sees a growing feeling among some governors that investing in programs for young children now may spare states from spending on prison construction and the like in the future.

"They are convinced that the only way to turn [crime and delinquency] around is to put more money up front," she said. "The earlier you start, the bigger pay-off you have."

Busy Season for Children

The 1996-97 legislative season has seen its share of early-childhood-education initiatives. Among those efforts:

  • In Connecticut, as part of a larger school desegregation and improvement plan, the legislature approved a $50 million plan to make school readiness programs available to another 5,000 to 6,000 preschoolers over a two-year period. Statewide, there are roughly 50,000 3- and 4-year-olds now being served in either part-day or full-day programs.

The bill targets the state's 14 poorest school districts, as well as more than 120 additional schools with a high percentage of poor children. Lawmakers also set aside another $43 million in construction funds for those early-childhood programs that need to build or improve facilities.

  • In North Carolina this year, the state's Democratic governor, James B. Hunt Jr., has proposed a $23 million expansion to Smart Start, a public-private effort to improve child care, health care, and other family services, such as literacy programs and transportation in rural areas. Legislators are expected to sign off on the governor's plan or something similar.
  • The Georgia legislature approved a $2.4 million expansion to Children First, a program that screens newborns for special needs, such as poverty, poor health, and developmental disabilities.
  • Meanwhile, in New York, two competing plans for early-childhood programs have been introduced. A $110 million Senate bill would double the number of slots in the state's program for 3- and 4-year-olds to 40,000 over a five-year period. A more ambitious proposal in the Assembly would authorize prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds and full-day kindergarten where it is not already available. The five-year, $5.5 billion plan also includes construction and technology aid, and would reduce class sizes in primary grades. Neither of the proposals is expected to reach the legislature's floor until the budget does, probably late this summer.

On the 'Playing Field'

Some early-childhood initiatives focus on better coordinating existing services, identifying areas for improvement, and making it easier for parents to get help.

In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Roy Romer has initiated the First Impressions program and raised the prominence of early-childhood issues. It has "placed early-childhood issues in closer proximity to the political playing field," said Sally Vogler, the program's policy director. Since First Impressions began in 1987, it has launched a statewide child-care resource and referral agency and a preschool program that now serves 8,500 at-risk children.

One of the goals of Ohio's Family and Children First Initiative, launched in 1992, has been to raise standards for early-childhood programs. Under the initiative, the state's public preschools must adhere to the same guidelines as the federal Head Start program for low-income children. The state is also streamlining the child-care licensing process.

Ohio, as well as other states, is also encouraging partnerships between Head Start and child-care programs to better serve children who need full-day services.

"We're trying to create this seamless system so the child doesn't go to Head Start for part of the day and somewhere else for the rest of the day," Ms. McCart said.

Giving parents--especially poor mothers--the support and knowledge they need to care for their infants is also popular. For instance, through Ohio's Help Me Grow program, 650,000 new mothers have received information about nutrition, infant development, and immunizations. At the local level, mothers who might need additional support can request home visits and free parenting classes.

Private Involvement

In many states, the private sector also plays an important role.

Even though it operates out of Gov. Romer's office, First Impressions is a nonprofit organization funded with private grants.

"We're talking to constituents that basically have not talked about young kids before," Ms. Vogler said of her efforts to involve business leaders in early-childhood issues and encourage "family friendly" work environments.

Businesses, community groups, and individual citizens are also heavily involved in North Carolina's Smart Start program. This fiscal year, state funding for the program is at $68.7 million. Private donations equal $3.4 million, and another $4.1 million in in-kind contributions was collected.

Fifty-five of the state's 100 counties have already signed on, and Gov. Hunt's fiscal 1998 budget plan would expand the program to the other 45 counties.

According to the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, child-care quality has improved in Smart Start communities.

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