This commentary first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
Before Caleb was born, his mother, Lori, vowed to give him everything he needed during his childhood: comfort and encouragement, a good education as he grew up, and the other supports that parents try to provide their kids.
Like many parents, Lori eventually discovered that her son would need more support than she could provide. Fortunately, she also discovered that the Texas Legislature funded Early Childhood Intervention, a program that could provide the services Caleb needed.
When Caleb was 18 months old, Lori noticed he wasn’t speaking or making eye contact with her. She talked to his pediatrician about her concerns regarding his development. The pediatrician referred her to a local ECI program, where a nurse, occupational therapist and service coordinator helped Lori recognize that Caleb had delays in his overall development. Lori was also referred to a doctor, who diagnosed Caleb with autism.
The diagnosis was the beginning of a new journey for Caleb and his family, and Lori was grateful to have the ECI team along with them. For the next year and a half, the interdisciplinary team helped Caleb make progress and taught his family the skills they needed to support him. As Lori says, "The heartbreaking realities of my little boy’s delays were softened by the care and concern of his team.”
Like Caleb’s family, other Texas families with children ages birth to 3 with developmental delays or disabilities rely on ECI. That is to say, these families rely on our state legislators, who make decisions about ECI’s two-year budget and the revenue that will be available for the program over the long-term.
Many state legislators understand what these services mean to families like Caleb’s. They know that thanks to ECI, Caleb was better prepared to learn when he started public school, a benefit not only to Caleb but also to his classmates, teachers and Texas taxpayers. Substantial research shows that investments in early intervention save money by reducing special education costs and the need for specialized programs in the future.
Unfortunately, state legislators sometimes lose sight of Caleb and other Texans when talk turns to changes in the state’s business tax or setting artificial limits on the revenue available to budget-writers. As they make those decisions, legislators need to determine if they are shortchanging Caleb, or if they are forcing an unnecessary choice between paying for early intervention services for him, effectively investigating child abuse in a neighbor’s home or providing mental health treatment for a classmate’s mother.
That’s what happened in 2011, when previous tax cuts, combined with a downturn in the economy and a refusal to use the rainy day fund, resulted in cuts to ECI and other programs. These cuts led the state to restrict eligibility for ECI, meaning fewer children were able to receive services.
Two years ago, legislators funded ECI so it could serve the growing number of Texas children needing assistance, but the program requires continuing support to remain sustainable. Without the funding to keep up with the growing need, more kids will be denied access to these life-changing services.
Given everything that ECI can do to lift up a child and our state, lawmakers should make it a priority.
Alice Bufkin is early opportunities policy associate at Texans Care for Children.