Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
July 24, 2015

NASHVILLE — State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said Friday that Tennessee’s ranking of 36th among the states in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new annual report on children’s well-being is “unacceptable” and that the state should focus more effectively on the needs of its children and youth.

Norris (R-Collierville) called on his legislative colleagues and Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration to do more to fund education, reform the juvenile justice system and improve nutrition.

He cited the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s respected and authoritative annual report, Kids Count, that compiles 16 different measures across four major categories of how children are faring in the states. The new 2015 report released this week ranks Tennessee 36th overall, the same as 2014.

On the four “domains” of children’s well-being, the state ranks 38th in economic measures, 36th in education, 30th in health, and 37th in family and community. The state improved or remained the same on 11 of 16 measures, while conditions in the state worsened on five indicators.

“The good news is we’ve improved significantly across the board in health and education, but we need to improve in critical areas where more reform is needed,” Norris said. “We pride ourselves in being number one in all sorts of categories. But we need to do better when it comes to the next generation of Tennesseans. Our children need to be nurtured as though our very lives depend upon them, because they do.”

As Senate Republican leader, Norris has led or played a key role in several initiatives aimed at education, workforce development, nutrition and juvenile justice. While the state has declined to apply for federal funding available for a statewide expansion of prekindergarten, he successfully sponsored a legislative budget amendment sought by Shelby and Davidson counties to apply for $17 million a year in federal money to expand pre-K programs in the state’s two largest counties.

He won approval of other budget amendments providing additional state funding for food banks, community health centers and residential adolescent drug treatment programs across the state.

“I don’t think our funding for education is what it needs to be, but my focus in this is on the juvenile justice system. If we can get at the root causes of some of these issues and maybe intervene before it’s too late with the next generation, we can make sure we have a next generation,” he said Friday.

One component of his efforts has been at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, where Norris is helping create and fund a Center for Health in Justice-Involved Youth to study the neurological impacts of violence on children and youth.

“This is a rapidly unfolding field of science dealing with the effects of violence and other environmental insults on the developing brain — for example, what is the effect on a youngster of witnessing domestic violence, and what is the effect on a youngster of witnessing a murder,” he said. “This is work that has been done in a sort of disparate fashion by a number of groups but what has been missing is an alignment centered around a clinical approach and the kind of research that can be done around a university medical center to make all this meaningful.

“If you can understand what happens to the developing brain early enough to diagnose a problem, you can perhaps divert a young person from a lifetime of crime. But you really can’t do the diagnosis and deal with it without the medical input, so UTHSC has stepped up to help create a center for the study of this, and we were able to provide funding for the faculty around which the program will be developed.”

Norris and UT officials envision, in addition to the neurological research, the center providing curriculum opportunities for residents in training to get out into communities to apply their knowledge.

In workforce training, Norris helped win legislative approval of the governor’s proposal for increased funding for the state’s colleges of applied technology, which teach technical skills for the workplace. And in addition to the governor’s new Tennessee Promise program, which pays for two years of technical school or community college beginning with this spring’s high school graduates, Norris sponsored legislation to expand a similar program allowing adults to go to community colleges as well.

 

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