New sweeping legislation calling for the start of Early Learning Councils to take the place of the existing state commission system geared toward helping at-risk youth is sending ripples of uncertainty through Columbia County.

The final bill passed by the Legislature in the 2012 session, HB 4165, puts Early Learning Councils, which have been established as a Gov. Kitzhaber education priority on the premise many social ills could be traced back to societal illiteracy, on the fast track to creation.

The idea is that funding for multiple agencies, ranging from federal Headstart programs to state-funded programs such as Healthy Start, would pool together and administrative oversight would pass to a regional Early Learning Council for the purpose of hitting rigorous new education benchmarks for young children.

Exactly how services would be doled out is still largely unknown. One immediate effect is that local commissions, such as the Columbia County Commission on Children and Families, that have historically served in various capacities for family and child social services would be abolished.

The state Commission on Children and Families and local chapters are set to go away July 1, 2013, with the Early Learning Councils in full effect as of Jan. 1, 2014. The ELCs would integrate and align services and set outcomes, standards, policies and requirements across all early childhood programs, according to state documents.

Earl Fisher, a Columbia County commissioner and former superintendent for the Clatskanie School District, said the idea makes a lot of sense from a broad perspective, but nailing down the details and potential fallout from closing out the commission system is problematic.

'There are so many unknowns about this,' Fisher said.

Perhaps the biggest concern is whether a regionally centered ELC would have the effect of cutting off existing cooperation among many locally focused agencies in Columbia County.

'My number one concern is that Columbia County would not have the cooperative spirit and ability to work together we have had under the commission system,' he said. 'We work very well together.'

Currently, Fisher, who serves on the local Commission on Children and Families, said local inheritors of successful programs such as Empty Bowls, which is geared toward hunger assistance, and the child safety seat program are being identified against the likelihood local assistance would be lost on the transition.

Fisher, as a former educator, also said he is concerned the broad-based education benchmarks, including ensuring children are 'ready to learn' by first grade, which presumes a level of literacy competency, wont' take into effect the special circumstances of individual children. 'Not every kid at 5 years old is going to be the same as the kid sitting next to him,' he said.

At present, the Columbia County Commission on Children and Families works as an umbrella agency to tie together social services for children until they reach 18 years old. With passage of HB 4165, Commissions on Children and Families statewide, as well as other commissioners, are abolished as of Jan. 1.

Jan Kenna, executive director for the Columbia County Commission on Children and Families, said there is a risk older children will be lost in the transition as the state focuses more on the development of younger children.

'Having a focus on early childhood is a good thing. The concern is that, yes, it divides the funding that now comes to local commissions. We have a system of services that supports kids from zero to 18, so one flows to the other. That may be more difficult to maintain.'

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