Gov. Laura Kelly left budget and policy fingerprints Thursday at the Kansas Children's Cabinet meeting focused on potential of innovative community programs to improve preparation of at-risk kids under age 5 to find success in school.
Kelly said the Legislature ought to quit draining away millions of dollars in tobacco settlement payments so Kansas could fulfill the promise of investment in early childhood education and health programs. The Democratic governor, who served on the Children's Cabinet as a state senator, pledged her administration would expand public-private projects preparing at-risk infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers for kindergarten.
In Kansas, only four of every 10 children age 3 to 4 attend preschool. The statistic is relevant because 90 percent of a child’s brain architecture is established before the age of 5.
"The status quo cannot propel us forward," Kelly said. "There is no better place to begin that shift than right here with the Kansas Children's Cabinet. Smart investments don't make much difference without smart leadership."
Kelly appointed Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican who served in the Kansas House, to serve as executive director of the Children's Cabinet. The governor also chose Kim Moore to be chairman of the Children’s Cabinet. He served as president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund in Hutchinson for more than 30 years.
"We must strive to be more proactive, not reactive. We will get this done right and our state will be very different and better for it," Kelly said.
The Children's Cabinet is comprised of members selected by the governor and legislative leaders, but the 15-person panel features the secretaries of state agencies with a role in the lives of children.
Lee Norman, a physician and the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told colleagues on the Children's Cabinet that more than 40 years of delivering babies made evident the necessity of attaching importance to well-being of children at every step of their young lives.
"We do not have an equitable health care system," Norman said. "Access to health care makes a big difference when it comes to health outcomes."
He said KDHE would investigate disparities in health care along ethnic and racial lines. No longer should anyone assume good health outcomes for Kansans enrolled in the privatized Medicaid system of KanCare, he said.
Laura Howard, who serves as secretary of both the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said her goal was to redirect streams of federal funding into preventative services for children in jeopardy of neglect or abuse.
Failure to engage at-risk kids in early education initiatives raised the risk of incarceration in juvenile and adult facilities, said Randy Bowman, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections.
"You're shrinking our front door when you're making these connections," he said.
Blake Flanders, executive director of the Kansas Board of Regents, said intervention with students too often occurred late. He said someone participating in an early childhood program had at least a 40 percent better chance of graduating from college.
In remarks to the Children's Cabinet, Kelly said funding of K-12 schools, reform of the foster care system and expansion of Medicaid were key priorities influencing the future of children. Underlying that work, she said, was development of new public-private partnerships supported with Children's Cabinet funding.
The formula for intervention in lives of children need to differ from city to city and from rural to urban regions, Kelly said.
"I'm not going to set up a one-size-fits-all," she said. "We won't come up with a cookie cutter for them."