Topeka Kansas is making strides in improving early childhood education and care, but a weak economy and competition for state funds threaten that progress, advocates said Friday.
"Given the state's financial situation, it is essential that we stay focused on protecting current investments in early childhood," said Gary Brunk, executive director of Kansas Action for Children, a not-for-profit organization that works to improve public policy and systems to benefit children.
KAC's 2003 Kids Count Data Book shows Kansas making steady progress in nine of 22 indicators, including immunizations, high school graduation rates and births to school-age mothers.
But the data also indicated that more Kansas children are living in poverty -- as measured by the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-priced school lunches -- and that incidents of child abuse and neglect are rising.
Brunk said with the state's finances squeezed in recent years, legislators must resist the urge to divert money dedicated to children's programs to fill other obligations.
"We will see other indicators declining, if the pattern continues," he said.
Kansas' programs for children are financed partly from the state's share of a multistate legal settlement with tobacco manufacturers. However, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has proposed using part of that money over the next several years to repay bonds to balance the 2003 and 2004 budgets.
Melissa Ness, chairwoman of the Kansas Children's Cabinet, which oversees the allocation of the tobacco revenue, said it was unfair to equate the decision to use a portion of the tobacco funds with the governor's support for childhood programs.
She said Kansas must do its best to attract money for children's programs.
Brunk said Kansas ranked in the bottom 10 among states in the ability to land federal money. With tight resources, agencies must look at their level of services and their focus.
"There is a great opportunity for the state to do a better job of coordination," he said.
One program that has shown results is Smart Start Kansas, which gives communities flexibility in addressing the needs of young children, the advocates said.
Those efforts include nontraditional and drop-in child care centers in Thomas County, reducing duplication of services and assisting chambers of commerce in incorporating child care into their economic plans.
Reggie Robinson, Children's Cabinet member and president of the Board of Regents, said investments in Smart Start had improved the salaries for and retention of early childhood professionals, who earn between $16,000 and $17,000 annually.
Still, the Kids Count survey found that Kansas' child care capacity declined in 2002 compared to the previous five years, Robinson said.