Hays USD 489, and indeed all of the public schools in Ellis County, understand the critical value of early childhood education. The developmental specialists know the returns are great not only for the individual child but overall society as well.
489's Early Childhood Connections, which offers programs for children and parents alike, specializes in identifying and then servicing at-risk youth. The results of Head Start, Early Head Start and Parents as Teachers are readily apparent when looking at common benchmarks.
* The number of Early Head Start slots available per 100 children 0-3 is 39.68 in Ellis County, compared to 6.64 statewide.
* Head Start slots are 97.67 here; Kansas boasts only 45.07.
* Pre-kindergarten or Four-Year-Old At-Risk programs are available at 71.43 percent of elementary schools in Ellis County; there are 49.81 percent statewide.
* Reading proficiency by the fifth-grade is 94.12 percent here and 87.09 percent in Kansas.
* Percent of schools meeting Adequate Yearly Progress requirements is 100 percent in Ellis County and 79.57 percent statewide.
* Even local high school graduation rates are higher, 88.89 percent compared to 84.77 percent.
Not only do early intervention efforts yield results during school, as these 2012 Kids Count data from the Kansas Action for Children illustrate, they help outside the classroom as well. Compared to the entire state, Ellis County has fewer teen violent deaths, youth binge drinking incidents, mental health hospitalizations, infant mortality and low birthweight babies. Later in life, the early interventions help job performance skills and social behaviors, leading to decreases in incarceration costs, crime-related expenditures and economic inequality.
What's not to like about all those measurements?
And the Early Childhood Connections receives accolades regularly. Last year, director Donna Hudson-Hamilton was awarded both the state and national Head Start Association administrator of the year. This year, Rebecca Greer was named Kansas teacher of the year while participant Cindy Walters was given the Beating the Odds Parent Award.
The staff of 60 works collaboratively to better help at-risk kids and the community. Again, what's not to like?
Yet these early intervention efforts are losing the funding necessary to be successful. Cost-cutting efforts at the state and federal levels threaten to undermine the programs' proven results.
Sequestration that Congress imposed on the nation has reduced ECC's funding by 5 percent for this year. The loss of $75,000 will mean two fewer children in Early Head Start and seven fewer in Head Start.
"We've been cutting back, cutting back, cutting back, and at some point, there's just no place to cut back besides the number that you're serving," Hudson-Hamilton said.
Nationally, sequestration is forcing more than 57,000 low-income children to be dropped from Head Start programs.
In Kansas, funding for the Kansas Endowment for Youth is raided by the Legislature through transfers to the state general fund. Almost $140 million has been taken from the CIF in recent years, depriving groups that conduct this critical work. That endowment, which has been paid for with tobacco settlement dollars, is expecting to decline significantly in 2018.
Congress is at least considering a $10 billion annual plan to target early childhood education efforts. While the gridlock in Washington prevents most commonsense legislation from moving forward, we would hope our elected leaders will see the value in this initiative. Threatening it, of course, will be tea party factions and others bent on starving government at all levels. Their pervasive argument is that by third grade, all of the academic advantages early education provides disappears and scores are equivalent from that point forward.
We would remind that the early intervention helped alleviate all the extra attention those kids would need in later years. Teachers and administrators don't have to spend as much time on remedial education if these at-risk children are paid attention to early.
We would hope elected officials in both Washington and Topeka come to the conclusion early childhood education works -- so programs such as Early Childhood Connections can continue providing their outstanding efforts.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry