Gov. Rick Scott is wisely making an exception to his opposition to the federal Affordable Health Care Act and rejection of federal money tied to the reforms. He plans to ask legislative leaders next month to reconsider the decision to reject $3.4 million for child abuse prevention that is tied to the health care law. That suggests that Scott — unlike Republican legislative leaders — will at least accept federal money for the law's less-controversial elements that show real promise for improving Floridians' lives. Lawmakers should take his lead or risk turning their backs even more on children.
Scott needs the Legislative Budget Commission to accept the money for a program known as Healthy Families Florida to ensure the state can apply for another federal grant that also holds great promise for bettering young Floridians' lives. Florida could win up to $100 million in the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. Florida already won one $700 million Race to the Top grant from the Obama administration to help reform public education.
The new competition would focus resources on early childhood development and education, particularly on promoting "school readiness for children with high needs." That's desperately needed in Florida, where lawmakers cut funding for the state's voluntary prekindergarten program by 7 percent this year, among other reductions adversely affecting children.
It's logical that the Obama administration would tie Race to the Top qualification to other federal investment in preventing child abuse and neglect. More and more, research is revealing how children's early environments shape their brains and lives. Keeping children safe while also training their caregivers on how to best prepare them to learn has an extraordinary impact on success in preschool and beyond. It also reduces the chance the child's care will ultimately fall to taxpayers, either through foster care, welfare or prison.
Why Florida lawmakers rejected the child abuse prevention grant during the regular session is not clear. Even though there was a general antagonism toward federal spending during the session, no legislative leader has owned up to rejecting this money, save for Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, a budget subcommittee chairman who said he sees Healthy Families as an intrusion into parents' private lives.
Negron's critique is unjustified. The program is voluntary. Parents who are considered at risk of abusing or neglecting their child, based on a questionnaire filled out at the child's birth, must agree to allow nurses into their homes. The nurses offer specific guidance on everything from nutrition to safety, including basic parenting skills such as how to comfort a child who won't stop crying or nonviolent means of discipline. Its success rate — based on reports of abuse within a year of completing the program — was 95 percent last year and 98 percent the year before that.
Scott rightly recognizes this program as a wise investment — a sharp turn from his typical concern that federal largesse will add to the national deficit. That's reassuring in a state capital where 2012 election politics, not good policy for Florida's future, are driving too many decisions. Now the Republican-controlled Legislative Budget Commission needs to follow suit — or lawmakers will have to explain why they don't support brighter futures for Florida's children.