Early childhood assistance should be a priority

This commentary originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle.

The recent bipartisan reaction against proposed cuts to acute care therapy services for children with disabilities illustrates a growing recognition that children’s first few years shape the rest of their lives and should be a priority.

Texas legislators, parents, therapists and advocates who have spoken out know that early childhood experiences and support make a lifelong difference. Early experiences literally alter the long-term architecture of children’s brains. When children have autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or other conditions likely to result in developmental delays, the right support early in life is particularly important.

The state’s Early Childhood Intervention, or ECI, program helps local organizations throughout Texas provide critical services to Texans younger than 3 with disabilities and developmental delays. ECI providers and families work as a team in the child’s natural environment, actively engaging the family in therapeutic services to promote the child’s growth and development.

Thanks to ECI, many young Texans who experienced early childhood challenges are now on a path to success. They have learned to walk and communicate with their families. They can meet more of their developmental milestones and do better in school. That greater ability to learn, socialize and thrive reduces the need for more costly systems such as special education and specialized medical care to address challenges that can become more entrenched and expensive to treat later in life.

Unfortunately, this past session the Legislature put in motion a broad range of cuts to reimbursement rates for therapists serving low-income children with special needs — cuts that many legislators recently realized they should revisit.

The cuts would reduce the resources available for children helped by ECI, as well as other Texas children in need, providing just the latest hit to kids with disabilities and developmental delays. The Legislature cut ECI services during the economic downturn of 2011 and never restored funding. As the program became more focused on the highest need children, the average cost per child naturally increased. Yet legislators ultimately reduced funding for ECI this session, putting access to these services at risk.

Amid the controversy over the proposed reimbursement rate cuts, state leaders have focused on the importance of serving children with developmental delays and disabilities. During the relative calm after the legislative session, they have an opportunity to take a closer look at these services and get the policy decision right.

As state leaders address the rate cuts, they should also commit to bolstering the ECI program. They should ensure that our state’s youngest children with special needs get the support they need during the critical development period before age 3, helping more children enter school ready to learn rather than behind the curve.

Alice Bufkin is an Early Opportunities Policy Associate, Texans Care for Children.