By CAROL WILLIAMS and CHARLIE WELLENSTEIN Year after year our legislators and governors have stated that a critical goal of legislative sessions is to provide opportunities for and to enhance the lives of the children and families of Montana. Yet, during the past 10 years, those opportunities have been squandered. Our children are denied the opportunities that their elected leaders promised.
We ask that our lawmakers and the administration address three issues that are unequivocally universal rights of all children: the right to live in a healthy environment without poverty, the right to health care and the right to a quality education.
There are 75,000 Montana children who live in households that are described as working poor. How do we protect the 21 percent of Montana's children who live below the federal poverty line? Additionally, the lack of health insurance continues to plague Montanans.
Of the 165,000 citizens of our state who do not have health insurance, 55,000 are children.
The main efforts to address the health of our children have been feeble. Our legislators voted to assist the health of Montana's children by increasing their eligibility for the Children's Health Insurance Program. However, this effort was hollow, since legislators never allotted more funding for the program. Our governor also persuaded the Legislature to allocate the majority of the money obtained from the tobacco lawsuits to the General Fund. The settlement money was designed to run comprehensive programs to prevent our youth from smoking and to pay for health care focused on tobacco-related illnesses. We believe that there is something fundamentally wrong by trying to balance the budget by risking the health of our children.
We advocate that a high-quality education means giving our children the best education possible. Montana teachers rank 48th in pay nationally. Montana schools will receive $10 million less in state funding this year than they did in the 2000-01 school year. Montana's American Indian students experience a dropout rate more than three times higher than non-Indian students. In the past decade, the Montana Legislature has funded public schools 16 percent below the rate of inflation. The current plans to reform education never include increasing the budget to invest in our children. Educational reform means more than reducing teachers' salaries and cutting school programs from an already stretched system. If the money is not available, our lawmakers in Helena need to have the requisite courage and foresight to obtain funding.
The kindergarten-through-12 schools are not the only educational system that deprives our youth of success. Montana is funding higher education at a level 44 percent below seven peer states chosen by the Legislature for comparison. Due to the lack of funding by the Legislature, Montana's families have absorbed tuition increases totaling 102 percent since 1992.
Affordable higher education is a cornerstone of economic well-being. Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor shows that those who graduate from a four-year university enjoy a substantial increase in income compared to those with just a high-school diploma.
We have formed Montana Kids First Political Action Committee solely to represent the voices and needs of Montana's children - children who have no party ties and who are not represented by special interests. Montana Kids First proposes to make our governor and legislators accountable for their voting pledges and records.
In the coming months we will examine and publish the voting records of our lawmakers regarding these issues and others related to the well-being of Montana's children. Also, we will distribute questionnaires asking where incumbents and candidates running for office stand on issues that will support the children of Montana. In the spring, we will compile our results and present a "State of Montana's Children" report.
Gov. Judy Martz, in her recent report to the people of Montana, stated, "We will not leave any Montanan behind." She promised to lead and deliver a better life for every Montanan. We believe that being pro-family and pro-child should be more than a sound bite or a pledge; it should be a promise that is kept.
Carol Williams is a former Democratic legislator from Missoula; Charlie Wellenstein teaches social work at the University of Montana. Both are members of Montana Kids First Political Action Committee.
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