An agenda for children

Under false political assumptions, both Gov. Martin O'Malley and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have refused to talk about their plans for helping Maryland families during the next four years. However, a poll just commissioned by Advocates for Children and Youth shows that even fiscally conservative voters in Maryland strongly support specific, cost-neutral strategies to create opportunity for children and self-sufficiency for families.

True, former governor Ehrlich has released a "roadmap" with some ideas, many of them old and vague. It is a start and shows that he may be realizing that to win the election, he needs to do more than run on his previous record. Hopefully, Mr. O'Malley will follow suit and a full and frank discussion between the two will take place.

For either candidate to energize voters, they need to explain how they will help families overcome unprecedented economic challenges despite a looming state budget deficit. Enthusiastic voters are key to increasing voter turnout, which will prove critical in a close election.

Dozens of groups from across the state that serve and support families are holding a gubernatorial forum on children Sept. 30. Below are some of the key issues that the candidates should be expected to discuss.

K-12 education: Maryland, through legislation, state agency action and a successful application for federal Race to the Top funding, has committed to significant reforms aimed at raising academic standards and closing achievement gaps. Mr. O'Malley was a reluctant latecomer and is trying to assert control over important details through a gubernatorial council. Voters strongly support efforts to recruit effective teachers to challenging schools and provide extra services to struggling students. What is the true nature of Mr. O'Malley's and Mr. Ehrlich's commitment to these reforms? Mr. Ehrlich's roadmap is silent, and we need to hear Mr. O'Malley declare his willingness to overcome resistance to these reforms from his own political allies.

Early childhood: In his roadmap, Mr. Ehrlich promises to strengthen pre-kindergarten programs but doesn't say how he would do so. An important hole in the state's current system is for English language learners, who are not eligible for pre-K unless they also happen to be economically disadvantaged. As a result, there is a significant school readiness gap among Latinos. The state has increased funding for English language learners but has done nothing to ensure that these dollars are well spent. Voters, particularly in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, support pre-K for English language learners. Do Mr. Ehrlich or Mr. O'Malley?

Juvenile justice: Mr. Ehrlich's roadmap says he will prioritize prevention initiatives, but he doesn't say what this means. Mr. O'Malley has expanded the most proven of these, multi-systemic therapy, but the need still far outstrips the supply. Will both candidates maintain and expand this program? Equally important, what will they do about the state's disastrous residential programs for youthful offenders? Both candidates are silent. In the ACY poll, voters almost universally supported better treatment for youth during confinement and once back in the community. That is what Missouri has used to produce vastly lower recidivism rates for a similar population. Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O'Malley have previously promised to bring this system to Maryland. What will they do over the next four years to make their promises a reality?

Child health: Mr. Ehrlich says he supports the O'Malley Babies Born Healthy initiative to reduce the state's extremely high infant mortality rate. So is there no difference in their views? Mr. O'Malley has not supported the single most cost-effective strategy: pre-pregnancy services so that women begin their pregnancies healthier. Voters support this idea, which has a small one-time cost per woman and then produces huge savings to the state.

Child welfare: Mr. Ehrlich's roadmap doesn't mention abused or neglected children. Voters like the idea of keeping more of these children in their own homes but want parents to receive the services they need to do this safely. The money is there to pay for these services because of reduced numbers of children in foster care, a trend that began under Mr. Ehrlich and continued under Mr. O'Malley. Will the candidates support a reinvestment of these savings into services for families, like substance abuse treatment, mental health care and housing assistance?

Childhood hunger: Mr. Ehrlich's roadmap doesn't mention families who need food stamps but can't get them because of an inefficient state application process, which requires families to go to multiple offices multiple times and wait in long lines to get the services they need in this terrible economy. Voters uniformly support a one-application system. Will either candidate commit to a specific date for implementing such a system?

Matthew H. Joseph is executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a Maryland-based independent nonprofit. His e-mail is

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