Lawmakers decry school readiness effort

Committee criticizes focus on health, safety

September 25, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Legislators sharply criticized top officials from several state agencies yesterday for ignoring the General Assembly's wishes in how Maryland should be helping young children.

Members of the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families said that although the Assembly has decided that the state's top priority should be ensuring children enter school ready to learn, some agencies are acting too slowly and setting their own agendas.

"We've been trying to get the subcabinet to focus on this priority as the wedge to crack the big problem open, which would help all of the other problems," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's Democrat.

"You can't scattershot this," Healey said. "You've got to pick one priority ... and it doesn't seem to be your focus," she told representatives of the Governor's Office on Children, Youth and Families, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Budget & Management.

The three departments are part of the Governor's Subcabinet for Children, Youth and Families.

The joint committee has been trying to improve and expand educational programs for children from birth to age 5. A survey by state and local educators last winter found that only two in five Maryland children are fully prepared academically and socially when they enter kindergarten. The committee has pushed for a voluntary certification system to make sure day-care providers meet new educational standards.

Yesterday, legislators said there appears to be too little communication among the members of the governor's subcabinet.

More than a year ago, committee members questioned the lack of mental health programs for children younger than age 5. They were told yesterday that health officials have not begun a survey of what programs are available and that a proposal to spend more next year has been rejected.

"It would seem to me a crisis is there, and we don't even have our hands around it," said Del. Mark K. Shriver, a Montgomery County Democrat and co-chairman of the joint committee.

Dr. Albert Zachik, director of the health department's Office of Child and Adolescent Services, agreed with the need but said the department had many budget priorities.

A proposal from the Office of Children, Youth and Families to target programs to particularly needy neighborhoods also was questioned for focusing on health and safety, rather than on preparing children to enter school.

"It doesn't seem to tie in to the issue this committee has talked about for two years," Shriver said.

Patricia Spann, the office's director of policy and planning, said money for the programs is coming from criminal justice funds, forcing the primary focus to be on health and safety.

Advocates of children's issues applauded the legislators' position and said they hope it leads to faster improvements in early childhood learning programs.

"The Office of Children, Youth and Families has not been listening to what this committee has been saying," said Sandra J. Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children.

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