by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark assistant editor
Ninety percent of a child's brain develops in the first five years of life.
Research shows early brain stimulation based on daily experiences, parent and caregiver responsiveness, nutrition, and physical activity greatly influence early brain development.
Studies also indicate children who were engaged in a high quality early childhood program are more likely to graduate high school, pursue an extended education, and earn higher wages. That directly correlates with a lower crime rate, lower unemployment rate, and fewer teen pregnancies.
Erin Brower, executive director for Raise Your Hands for Kids, said that is why investing in early childhood programs is key to creating a better Missouri. “If a kids not getting a right start from the very beginning, they will face a lot of challenges down the road.”
To ensure all children across the state receive a fair start, the Alliance for Childhood Education has been exploring ways to fund early childhood education in Missouri and Kansas.
“The piece of the pie designated to early childhood education has been shrinking,” said Brower. “We don't treat it as a priority. We are the 38th worst state out of 40 states that have public pre-k.”
In Missouri, funding for the early childhood program, Parents as Teachers, was slashed in half. That's why the Alliance for Childhood Education identified a potential funding mechanism to support early childhood health and education.
“We discovered that Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax in the nation,” said Brower. “At 17 cents a pack it is the last untapped revenue source for funding for early childhood education.”
The state adjacent to Missouri with the next lowest tobacco tax is Kentucky. The state has a tobacco tax of 60 cents a pack. In Kansas, the tobacco tax is 79 cents. In Illinois, the tobacco tax is $1.98. In Iowa, it is $1.36 a pack.
Over the past 15 years, a ballot initiative to increase the tobacco tax in Missouri has failed three times. In spite of this track record, the Alliance for Childhood Education is poised to craft a policy with widespread bi-partisan appeal.
“We really want to design a policy that will win. We are pursuing a November 2016 ballot measure to increase the state's tobacco tax and invest the proceeds in early childhood health and education programs.”
The presidential open seat in 2016 should lead to a high voter turnout, which should be good for the initiative, said Brower.
Brower said a poll conducted by The Mellman Group in August of 2014 indicated Missourians would support a 50 cent tax increase to support early childhood health and education for children ages birth to five-years-old.
That would bring the tobacco tax to 67 cents in Missouri. The tax would raise $250 million. That amounts to $550 per child.
Currently, one in six pregnant women in Missouri smokes during pregnancy.
To reduce this occurrence, the policy will include smoking cessation for pregnant women. “We know smoking has a huge impact on the health and well-being of children so we decided to include that in our childhood initiative,” said Brower.
Over the past year, the Alliance for Childhood Education held 13 community conversations across the state. In Kansas City, the event drew over a 100 people.
“We really wanted to get out in the community to hear about needs and what people want.”
“The biggest difference between our initiative and the past three attempts is our grassroots approach. We are designing the policy based on what we are learning from people instead of this top down approach where the policy was designed first and then sold to the state,” she said.
Polling conducted in February and April of this year is an indicator the initiative is on track. The Alliance for Childhood Education is actively working with the opposition, including tobacco companies and the convenience store association, to reach a compromise.
“Being the lowest in the nation, they know a tobacco tax increase is coming so we are really trying to gather the appropriate ballot language, because it is a really great investment for our state.”
The Alliance for Childhood Education will be filing the language of the ballot initiative with the Secretary of State later this summer. Once the Secretary of State approves the ballot language, the non-profit organization will then begin the daunting task of collecting the estimated 100,000 signatures needed to get the measure placed on the ballot.
A combination of volunteers and paid signature gathers will be organized to collect the necessary number of signatures.
The cost of signature gathering is estimated to cost anywhere between $500,000 to $600,000.
Their deadline to obtain all necessary signatures is May 8, 2016. Over the next many months, the Alliance for Childhood Education will be fundraising to support the cost of signature gathering for the initiative.
On June 22, a special cocktail reception to support the early childhood health and education act will be held at the Legoland Discovery Center located at 2475 Grand Boulevard in Kansas City. The event kicks off at 7:30 p.m. The event is co- hosted by Alex Altomare and Grant Gooding. Chad Troutwine is scheduled as the guest speaker.
To learn more visit www.raiseyourhandsforkids.org.