Why do families want to call Kansas home? If you asked me several years ago, I quickly would have pointed to our strong schools, good roads and smart investments in children and their families.
But times have changed, and many of the things that made me and thousands of others proud to call Kansas home are hanging in the balance during the 2015 session of the Legislature, not the least of which is our willingness to invest in our youngest children.
Despite the promises they made to little kids in our state, lawmakers have continued to erode the small public investment we make each year through the Kansas Endowment for Youth and the Children’s Initiatives Fund. Most recently, lawmakers swept $12 million into the state general fund from the endowment, leaving it nearly empty and creating great uncertainty for early care and education programs in Kansas for years to come.
That brings the total that lawmakers have raided over the years to more than $179 million, and they aren’t done yet. The governor’s budget proposal includes sweeping an additional $17.3 million over the next two fiscal years. That won’t make much of a dent in the state budget, but would make a huge difference to Kansas children.
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In the wake of cuts to education and transportation and other important infrastructure, lawmakers’ willingness to use money promised to our youngest children as their go-to piggy bank seems to have gone unnoticed.
As if the repeated misuse of dollars promised to young children isn’t bad enough, lawmakers compounded the situation with their recent proposal to eliminate funding for one of the state’s most well-respected children’s programs, Parents as Teachers. While that proposal was quickly reversed after an outpouring of concern from parents and educators, the future of Parents as Teachers still hangs in the balance.
The program is one of only a few that have the potential to reach all Kansas families, ensuring the opportunity for early intervention if developmental problems are identified. Early intervention not only serves the best interests of Kansas children and their families, but it also clearly saves the state money.
While our youngest children and their families will be forced to rely on a fragile system in the years ahead, it isn’t too late for lawmakers to chart a different course. Lawmakers can finally say “enough is enough” and decide to keep their promise to our young children.
With declining tobacco settlement dollars just around the corner, this is the last opportunity. Preserve funding for vital programs such as Parents as Teachers and stop borrowing from our state’s future. Leave the $17.3 million in the children’s piggy bank.
Shannon Cotsoradis is president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, based in Topeka.