More money sought for early childhood ed; problem gambling bill advances

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March 4, 2013 - 6:00pm

Nebraska needs to increase funding for early childhood education in order to help more children who are at risk of failing in school and afterwards, advocates told sometimes skeptical members of the Appropriations Committee Monday.

Currently, a state program called Sixpence distributes about $1.5 million a year for early childhood education programs. Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff wants the state to increase that by $10 million in each of the next two years. Harms says there are 30,000 children in Nebraska under age 3 at risk based on factors including poverty. "We’re only getting one percent of those children. So all the rest of the children we have are at risk of failing," he said.

Jim Kreiger, chief financial officer of the Gallup Organization, said 20 percent of today’s workforce is functionally illiterate, and early childhood education can help.

Tracy Garrean of Plattsmouth said she was functionally illiterate when she graduated from high school. She said an early childhood education program has helped her make sure her three- and four-year-olds are ready for school. "Sixpence hasn’t just taught my kids. It has taught me a world that I didn’t know existed," she said. "It’s helped me become a better parent, and to teach them how to be confident, how to be well-adjusted. It has taught them to believe in themselves which to me is a very hot-button issue. If they don’t believe then they don’t excel."

Advocates say the early childhood education programs can do things like teaching parents skills for playing with their children in ways that make them emotionally ready for school. That led Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion to wonder about how that had been accomplished in the past. "How did we handle that in America 100 years ago, 140 years ago, on the plains of Nebraska. There was no government program to teach a parent to hold their kids, talk with their kids and play with their kids. How di we do it before the welfare state?" he asked.

Kathleen Feller of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, which administers the program, responded that Sixpence is not just a government program. "It is a public-private program. It’s really a parent program for kids that government can invest in. It’s a parent program and a child program, and the government just happens to be once piece of the investing behind that. It’s a program that works," she said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

In debate Monday morning, the Legislature gave first round approval to a bill by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist that would take control of a program to help problem gamblers away from the Department of Health and Human Services. Krist said the program had been well-run until the Department changed it a couple of years ago. Now, "Rather than providing in-person counseling or treatment as the first and only option, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services – DHHS – which oversees the state gamblers’ assistance funds, has decided to contract for gamblers’ assistance services outside of our state with a service that only provides problem gamblers with assistance over the phone, from Chicago," he said.

DHHS said in a letter that the telephone service is intended to provide support and motivation for people to seek treatment. Senators gave the bill first round approval on a vote of 33-0.

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