Melissa Rooker's belief in power of investment in early childhood education was deepened through absorption of fresh evidence Kansas missed opportunities to improve health and well-being of kids under age 5.
Rooker, a former Republican state representative, was hired in February by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to serve as executive director of the Kansas Children's Cabinet and Trust Fund. It was created two decades ago to allocate and monitor $50 million annually in tobacco company payments to the state.
The cash, when not sidetracked by the Legislature, gradually prepared at-risk infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers to succeed in kindergarten. There are consequences to depriving children of services, Rooker said.
"What I hear consistently is how much greater the need is and how much more severe some of the issues that kids are dealing with," Rooker said. "It takes a concerted effort to build the right foundations."
Rooker joined Annie McKay, president of Kansas Action for Children and a member of the Children's Cabinet, for a Capitol Insider podcast to discuss challenges of reinvigorating capacity of the Children's Cabinet to influence the future of children statewide.
Both shared concern interests of children 0-5 were undercut by diversion of large amounts of tobacco-settlement funding to expenditures unrelated to kids by politicians, or by people eager to modify or limit government's role in helping struggling families.
In Kansas, 60 percent of children age 3 to 4 don't attend preschool. The state's Early Head Start programs enroll about 10 of every 100 children eligible for the program.
McKay said 36,000 children were born in Kansas annually, which meant officials following the lead of Gov. Sam Brownback, who was in office from 2011 to 2018, collaborated to withhold opportunities for more than a quarter-million children in low-income families to benefit from a solid start in life.
"Paying the lights at KDOT is not going to help make our kids successful," McKay said. "It was particularly troubling during Governor Brownback's years where we were propping up ideology at the expense of our youngest Kansans."
In 2017, Brownback proposed the state pocket a one-time payment of perhaps $500 million to deal with budget problems by selling future tobacco payments to Kansas.
The Legislature wasn't opposed to using the tobacco fund as a bank account, but declined Brownback's proposal to shut down the Children's Cabinet.
Rooker said the original idea of building a robust trust fund for children hadn't been fulfilled.
"We know that over the years that has been an attractive pool of money for lawmakers. So, there's virtually nothing in the endowment," she said.
Rooker said the Children's Cabinet collaborated with child care facilities, schools and community organizations to serve children in all 105 counties.
The needs of urban and rural areas differ but the strategy is to work with children and their parents, she said.
"We have a two-generational approach," she said. "You can't just direct funding at good things for kids. You've got to address the environment that the home represents."