DeWine cites moral obligation for state to invest more in at-risk kids

In making LeeAnne Cornyn his first cabinet appointment, Ohio Gov.-elect Mike DeWine intended to make a statement about the importance he attaches to helping at-risk kids.

Cornyn will direct children’s initiatives for the incoming administration. Asked why he chose children’s issues as his top focus rather than job creation or public safety or the drug crisis, DeWine said all of those issues are related.

“Take jobs. The biggest problem we have today is we can’t find people who are qualified for jobs,” said DeWine, a Republican who will take office in January. “A lot of that goes back to the fact that they didn’t get a good enough start in life. … I just think this is so important, and everything really flows from the first few years of life.”

DeWine called helping vulnerable children an central role of government.

“These are children that I think we have a moral obligation to reach out to,” he said. “The whole goal (of early childhood efforts) is by age 5 to get them to the starting line in kindergarten so they have the opportunity to go on from there to compete.”

Cornyn, who held the same title in DeWine’s attorney general’s office, will be the first to assume that role in the governor’s office.

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Five goals

DeWine has listed five major early-childhood program goals: improving access and quality of early-childhood education, increasing home visits for at-risk mothers, access to a mental health professional in every school, reforming the foster care system and adding age-appropriate drug prevention education to schools.

Cornyn said DeWine’s administration can learn from work done in Dayton, Cincinnati and Cleveland to increase access to high-quality pre-kindergarten care. DeWine has proposed making 20,000 more children eligible for publicly funded child care by raising the income limit to enroll.

Helping at-risk first-time mothers is another key thrust. DeWine is pushing to triple the number of families who get home visits — from pregnancy until the child reaches age 3. Ohio’s home-visiting programs are “grossly underfunded,” according to DeWine, reaching only 4 percent of eligible children.

Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Learn to Earn Dayton, said the programs are “one of the very best ways to help young families in that 0-3 phase.” Caseworkers in the program connect new mothers with quality pre-natal care and then work with them on developing good parenting skills.

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Looming deadline

The looming 2020 deadline for child care centers to earn a 1-star rating or lose state funding for low-income children — those falling beneath the poverty thresholds — will also provide a test for the administration. Many providers have called it a crisis situation, and Cornyn acknowledges that there is a palpable level of fear about the deadline in the industry. Administration officials have vowed to work with providers to help them meet the standards for continuing to receive state funding.

Some child care providers have complained that the state’s tiered quality rating system, called Step Up To Quality, focuses more on documentation than ensuring kids are getting what they need at a critical age.

Palmer Jason, director of the two-star Good Shepherd Academy child care in Miamisburg, said the state could focus on helpful guidance in addition to just rules compliance. For example, he said, operators should feel free to ask for advice on a situation without worrying they’ll get cited for the information they shared.

Jason also urged state officials to get policy input from smaller independent child care centers, not just larger chains that have more resources to handle administrative tasks. And since many centers rely heavily on resource/referral agencies like 4C for Children for help, he urged the state to make sure those groups are funded.

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DeWine: ‘Do we have to sell this? Yes’

DeWine said his children’s initiative goals are ambitious but doable, and acknowledged the administration will have to make the case for funding to the legislature, especially since the return on investment for early childhood work can take years to see.

“Do we have to sell this? Yes,” he said. “Do we have to explain it to people? Yes. But I think this will be an investment that people will be willing to make because it’s the right thing to do. Governing is setting priorities, and we can’t wait to get moving on this.”

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