Patton: $56 million for kids
FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Exceeding the expectations of even the most optimistic child advocates, Gov. Paul Patton proposed an ambitious plan yesterday to spend $56 million in tobacco settlement money over the next two years to help Kentucky's youngest children g
Patton said he was confident his "Kids Now" proposal would be approved by the General Assembly and "get us started toward our goal that all young people in Kentucky are healthy and safe" and "possess the foundation that will enable school and personal success."
But some lawmakers and child development experts yesterday questioned the idea of using tobacco money.
Patton's plan is aimed at improving health care, day care and life at home for young children. It includes expansion of immunizations and health screenings, subsidies to help more low-income families pay for day care, statewide expansion of home visitation programs for disadvantaged families, hiring more day-care inspectors and trainers, and scholarships to help day-care workers get more training.
"I'm surprised and pleased at the amount of money," said Linda Locke, public policy director for Community Coordinated Child Care, a Louisville agency that assists day-care centers.
Patton may hike farmer's share
In addition to the 25 percent of tobacco settlement money he wants for early childhood programs, Gov. Paul Patton told some lawmakers yesterday that he wants to spend 25 percent on health-insurance proposals and the remaining half on agriculture.
However, any money to combat teen smoking would come out of the half allocated to agriculture.
Debra Miller, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, was equally pleased. "This is a significant down payment and represents a significant commitment to meeting the needs of young children in our state," she said.
Patton's recommendation follows a nine-month study by a task force and a Courier-Journal series on early childhood conditions in Kentucky.
The Courier-Journal reported in December that the quality of many day-care centers is poor, many day-care centers violate regulations, the number of state inspectors for child-care centers is far below national standards and thousands of babies are born sick or underweight in Kentucky each year because of insufficient health care.
Some experts in the field expressed concern yesterday that the first two years of the program would be funded with temporary money from the state's share of the tobacco settlement.
"It's wonderful to see gubernatorial leadership in issues as important as young children," said Sharon Lynn Kagan, with the Bush Child Study Center at Yale University. But she said she would prefer a more stable funding source.
HELEN BLANK, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group in Washington, said she liked the idea of offering scholarships but would prefer that the proposal include wage supplements and health care for child-care workers -- two benefits that would reduce turnover.
Blank also expressed concern about Patton relying entirely on tobacco settlement money.
But his plan's goals appear sound, experts said.
Craig T. Ramey, a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, lauded the proposal because, he said, it combined health care, family support and early childhood education. "I believe that those are the three critical elements that need to be brought together," he said.
Ramey also said the dollar amount requested would place Kentucky in the upper third among states that have early childhood programs.
Using tobacco money could be the key obstacle in gaining approval from lawmakers.
House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, didn't anticipate any problems passing Patton's measure in the House, but in the Republican-controlled Senate, questions could arise over Patton's plan to spend 25 percent of the national tobacco settlement on early childhood programs.
"A LOT of us have concerns with ongoing programs being funded with" tobacco money, said Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.
Patton said he hoped that "the 25 percent would not even be a subject of debate. But everything is a subject of debate if the members of the General Assembly want to make it."
Patton said he believed his proposal would be a legitimate use of the settlement the state received from cigarette manufacturers as compensation for Medicaid expenses from treating tobacco-related illness.
Patton's proposal closely mirrors the recommendations of the 25-member task force he established last March to produce a 20-year plan for improving the lives of the state's youngest children. And his initiative comes at a time when many other states are expanding or setting up similar programs, based partly on brain-research findings about the importance of a child's first three years in long-term development.
PATTON'S PLAN contains some elements of North Carolina's Smart Start initiative -- $4.1 million in scholarships to attract and retain child-care workers, and a system to rate day-care centers on quality and pay bonuses to those that excel. But unlike North Carolina, where 10 percent of the funding came from the private sector, most of Kentucky's programs would be run directly by state government.
Kim Townley, executive director of Patton's office on Early Childhood Development, said that because the state's health departments already have programs or pilot projects involving many of the initiatives, it was decided to expand those.
The $14 million plan to provide regular home visits to pregnant women and disadvantaged parents with young children would be an expansion of a state program that exists in 15 rural counties.
And the $6 million program in which health-care professionals and educators provide basic health services at day-care centers would be an expansion of a state pilot program in Fayette County.
Other health department expansions include: immunizing all children by age 2; screening newborns for hearing problems; and providing folic acid to pregnant women to help reduce birth defects such as spina bifida.
Townley did not know how many new employees would be hired as part of the health department expansions. She said the state's Office of Inspector General would add 35 more day-care inspectors under the plan. That would reduce the caseloads of inspectors from 100 day-care centers to 50. Also, the proposal calls for hiring 22 more employees in that office to provide technical assistance to day-care operators to improve quality and to track their results.
PATTON'S PLAN would also spend $12 million to increase the percentage of families that are eligible for a child-care subsidy reimbursement. The income eligibility would increase from 160 percent of the poverty level to 170 percent. More than 12,000 additional children would be eligible under the new standard.
The proposal would award $2.5 million to communities that set up local partnerships to address specific issues involving children and families. Much of that money has already been earmarked for these rural counties -- Fulton, Graves, Butler, Hardin, Metcalfe, Clinton, McCreary, Madison, Clay, Owsley, Perry, Wolfe, Floyd, Elliot, Breathitt. But other counties could apply.
Patton's plan would establish a business council to promote corporate awareness and involvement in early childhood programs -- by establishing on-site day-care programs, for example.
The proposal also sets up a council on professional development to bring more order to the fragmented system of credentialing day-care workers, and a board to oversee the entire early childhood proposal. Townley would head up the latter board and Patton's daughter, Nicki Patton, who led his task force, is expected to lead the development council.
Townley said that two high-cost recommendations from the task force that didn't make Patton's proposal were wage supplements and state-paid health insurance for day-care workers.
Melissa Cranford, who operates a small child-care facility out of her Louisville home, said she was disappointed by the insurance omission.
Cranford said she can't afford insurance for herself and says she knows others who would like to open child-care facilities but don't want to relinquish their health coverage.
REP. TOM Burch, D-Louisville, who will sponsor Patton's bill, said, "What's in this document is a beginning. It's not a finished product. . . . It's going to take a number of years to feel its impact. I envision that over the years we'll see more children coming to school ready for learning in kindergarten and in the first grade."
Richards, the House speaker, said, "I think the votes are there. I think the members of the General Assembly realize how important this issue is."
Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, who was on the task force, was pleased with many aspects of Patton's proposal, saying, "Many of these are basic health care services that need to be brought into the communities, especially the communities where I come from in the rural sectors."
But neither Stivers nor Richie Sanders, R-Franklin, head of the Senate budget committee, was willing to commit now to devoting $56 million to the plan.
Staff writer Tom Loftus contributed to this story.