CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I'm still not sure exactly how or why it happened, but it seems like over the last few months the stars and planets aligned in a way that will help West Virginia move forward in the years to come. In a big way. And right in time for its 150th birthday.
For example, the Feed to Achieve Act, which passed the Legislature by a huge margin despite some whacky rhetoric, could make real strides in improving child nutrition and ultimately academic performance in West Virginia -- if we follow through with it at the grassroots level.
The decision by Gov. Tomblin to expand Medicaid will save lives, create jobs, generate a lot of economic activity, reduce the cost of uncompensated care, and provide coverage to over 100,000 hard working West Virginians.
Prison overcrowding, a proverbial can that has been kicked down the road for years, was finally at least partially addressed this legislative session. Medicaid expansion might help even more in this area as a way of addressing our huge substance abuse issues, especially as the state moves toward greater use of drug courts as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.
Another major step forward was the expansion of pre-kindergarten education for 4-year-olds, which was part of the governor's education bill. As I wrote in an earlier column, tons of research shows that investments in early childhood pay off hugely in economic and developmental gains.
Gov. Tomblin has also recently appointed an early childhood planning taskforce to look at further improvements.
One area I hope the task force considers is the growing scientific evidence for how critical the first two years of life are for brain and ultimately character development. More to the point, adversity, such as neglect, abuse or lack of suitable stimulation in this period actually affects the structure of the brain down to the cellular and DNA level.
An article by Jonathan Cohn in the November 2011 New Republic is available online if you're interested ("The Two Year Window," newrepublic.com).
Here's a sneak preview. Some of the groundbreaking research in this area occurred when Charles Nelson, an American neuroscientist, visited the notorious orphanages in Romania in 2001. These were eerily quiet places where neglected infants gazed at the ceiling. Children who grow up this way have all kinds of developmental problems, cognitive, behavioral and emotional. Brain scans of such children reveal diminished activity compared with others in more nurturing environments
Nelson and others prevailed upon the government to place some of the children in foster care with families. How these children fared was compared with those who lived with their biological parents and with those who remained in the institutions.