Together but separate, DeWine and Whaley talk childcare at forum

Ohio’s candidates for governor didn’t meet face-to-face Thursday, but they spoke an hour apart at the same event: the Vote for Kids Ohio Leadership Forum at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Republican incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine, seeking a second term, and his Democratic opponent former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley made short introductory speeches and then each took a half-dozen questions from a live panel.

The forum, on the theme “Moving from Crisis to Prevention,” brought together nearly 800 leaders in business, education and healthcare, according to organizers.

Vote for Ohio Kids is a nonpartisan statewide effort urging gubernatorial candidates to prioritize children and families. It’s backed by the policy group Groundwork Ohio, the six members of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association and business group Ohio Excels.

In his opening speech, DeWine said his goal for Ohio’s children was the same as for his own children and grandchildren: to ensure they all have access to the education and training they need to reach their full potential.

His first biennial budget provided “significant dollars” for behavioral health services in all of the state’s school districts, DeWine said.

DeWine listed several children’s health programs for which he supported funding, and touted his wife Fran’s promotion of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which provides a free book each month to any child from birth to age 5.

The state is reforming its Medicaid programs, which serve many children, DeWine said. That includes better access to specialized care for families that previously might have had to go out of state, he said.

When DeWine became governor only 40% of the state’s childcare providers were rated for quality, he said.

“Today every single one is quality rated in the state of Ohio,” he said.

DeWine didn’t mention Whaley, but Whaley attacked DeWine, including for his avoidance of debating her face-to-face.

“He was here an hour ago, and that’s the closest we’ll get to a debate,” she said.

Whaley acknowledged she had a member of her campaign stand outside the convention center in a giant chicken costume, needling DeWine for his reluctance.

Whaley said under her watch Dayton became the first city in Ohio to provide paid family leave to municipal employees. Dayton also expanded access to preschool, and she pledged as governor to provide the same access for 250,000 more families statewide.

Whaley dismissed DeWine’s professed concern for children as an “election year talking point for him.” Under DeWine, she said, Ohio has fallen in national rankings of childhood well-being.

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Whaley said DeWine’s stances on abortion and guns indicate his lack of concern for children, citing the case of a 10-year-old rape victim who had to travel to Indiana for an abortion after Ohio’s ban went into effect, and DeWine’s signature on a bill to allow school personnel to carry guns with a few hours of training.

Child mental health

Asked about pandemic-related mental and behavioral impacts on children, DeWine said children’s hospitals are overwhelmed with new cases. But youth is the time to pay closest attention to mental health, since three-quarters of mental issues manifest before age 25, he said.

In a second term he wants to “really make Ohio the No. 1 state in research,” which would draw more expertise. DeWine said he plans to present a legislative proposal on the subject, but didn’t give specifics.

Mental health services should be accessible in every community, he said.

“We have started down that path for adults as well as for children,” DeWine said.

The state also faces a severe shortfall in mental healthcare workers, he said. DeWine said he wants to begin paying trainees for work that’s now unpaid, offer scholarships and otherwise incentivize people to go into the field.

Whaley, in contrast, alleged that youth mental health services have been “gutted to the core” and need to be greatly expanded. That will require long-term dedicated state funding, not reliance on one-year grants, she said.

Addiction at home

Asked how the state can improve the environment for children whose parents may be in jail, suffering mental problems or abusing drugs, Whaley said Ohio must deal with the root causes of those factors, not the symptoms. She named gun safety and addiction services specifically.

DeWine’s signature on multiple bills loosening gun laws is the “exact opposite of what we need,” she said. Ohio should repeal those, and approve a “red flag” law and extreme-risk protection orders, as even some Republican-run states have done, Whaley said.

Dayton cut accidental overdose deaths in half, and didn’t see a spike in such deaths during the pandemic, she said. Whaley credited that to treating opioid addiction as a disease, going after the companies that marketed powerful opioids, and offering long-term addiction care.

The 30 days of treatment that Medicare or Medicaid cover aren’t enough to overcome addiction, but many communities — such as Portsmouth — are unable to fund longer stays, she said.

“This is where the state can definitely engage,” Whaley said.

DeWine said Ohio is expanding home visitation to teach parenting skills.

“We have doubled that program, we will double it again in our next administration,” he said.

More funding is going to foster care programs, and the state is working through a list of 17 recommendations for further improvement, DeWine said.

The Ohio START program, begun when DeWine was attorney general, offers help for drug-addicted parents with the goal of keeping families together, he said.

“You can’t just help the child. At the same time you have to help the parent,” DeWine said.

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In addressing poverty, his goal is for every child graduating high school to be on a pathway to employment, either through trade school or college.

Childcare, preschool

More than 60% of Ohio children were deemed unready for kindergarten in the past year, showing the need for equitable access to early learning, according to one panelist.

DeWine reiterated efforts including Imagination Library and childcare quality ratings.

He also said the state has expanded eligibility for publicly funded childcare from 130% of the federal poverty line to 142%. That’s going from a maximum of $29,939 to $32,703 for a family of three.

“I plan to increase this to at least 150% in our next budget. We certainly hope to go even higher than that,” DeWine said. That would be a ceiling of $34,545, again for a three-person household.

Whaley said she’s proud to have improved high-quality preschool in Dayton, supported childcare facilities during the pandemic — especially those operated by minority women — and to have offered providers what they said they needed instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all model.

That system should be scaled up statewide, she said; Whaley acknowledged that would be expensive, but said it could be paid for by eliminating tax loopholes for “lobbyists and lawyers.”

Child wellness

On the rise in suicides among young people and the often lengthy waits for relevant counseling and other care, Whaley said part of the problem is that children have easy access to guns. Schools need more services to identify troubled kids, and talking about mental health should be destigmatized, she said.

DeWine said he has directed $85 million to children’s hospitals and $1.2 billion to student wellness, with more to come. He advocates a “beat the stigma” campaign to encourage talking about mental health and said the state needs to continue improving access to mental healthcare.

DeWine said his first act as governor was creating the Governor’s Children’s Initiative to address disparities in healthcare access, but more needs to be done. In the upcoming state budget he wants to double funding for mitigating lead contamination.

During the pandemic telehealth was found to work well in many areas; that access should be expanded, including for use in schools, DeWine said.

Whaley said it will take a reallocation and increase of funding to improve access and quality of healthcare for youth.

“I know I sound like a broken record here, but we can’t keep on cutting taxes for the very wealthy and hoping that magically we’ll be getting funding for services for our most vulnerable, which is our children,” she said.

Whaley praised the school funding formula that went into effect this year, but again said schools need long-term funding they can rely on instead of one-time grants for services.

On dealing with a worker shortage in children’s services, Whaley said an educated workforce is the foundation for improved services. JobsOhio should designate preschool education and childcare workers a critical industry for recruitment, she said.

Childcare staffing

Whaley supports raising the minimum wage, and pay for childcare workers needs to be higher than that, she said. But families can’t be expected to cover that increase, so it should be funded by the state, Whaley said.

Many people want to work in childcare, but can’t afford to do so; low pay is the biggest issue for workers in the field, she said.

DeWine said the state put “hundreds of millions of dollars” toward supporting those workers during the pandemic and created “hero pay” for those who remained in the field.

Two rounds of grants have gone out so far to stabilize childcare businesses, including provisions for employee retention bonuses, he said.

In the longer run there should be more opportunities for free training for those who want to work in childcare, DeWine said.

The state’s Bold Beginning website, Boldbeginning.ohio.gov, includes a “blueprint” of priorities he wants legislators to address, DeWine said.

DeWine did not remain to take media questions after his appearance, but Whaley did. Asked how she would convince Republican legislators to fund services by scaling back tax cuts — which she described as primarily benefiting legislators’ “friends” — Whaley said she’d put the onus on legislators to explain those tax breaks to constituents.

“Put it in your biannual budget and fight it out,” she said. Ohio’s governor legally has extensive powers, but DeWine has feared to use them, instead letting House Speaker Matt Huffman, R-Lima, be “the most powerful person in the state,” she said.

Whaley said she wants to codify the now-overturned abortion protections of Roe v. Wade in the Ohio constitution, describing legal abortion access as part of healthcare, economic, workforce and personal freedom issues.

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