Stop looking to the federal government on early childhood education

For decades, early childhood education advocates and the scientists, economists, and philanthropists who back them have been waiting for the federal government to step up to the plate and do what’s responsible, moral, and economically wise: make high-quality early childhood education a reality for everyone. With no indication that this is happening, even less so now, we need to focus on more promising pathways.

A smart path forward might combine adapting high-quality state-level strategies across more states and bubbling up lessons from pioneering districts. The latter help ensure a targeted focus on community-level needs and assets, and some offer timely lessons on how to link early childhood to the elementary years and beyond.

Recent presidents have all expressed support for investments in early childhood education. Still, even the strongest advocate, President Obama, left a legacy that includes higher standards and more funding but far too little of either to ensure all children a strong start. President Trump’s early childhood agenda consists so far of his daughter’s proposal to use tax deductions for the costs of child care to boost resources for the middle-class and wealthy families that can already afford it, while neglecting working-class and poor parents who can’t and expanding the budget deficit. Other policies he has advanced would compound problems for disadvantaged students. His “skinny budget” would strip public schools of key resources and, had the repeal-and-replace of Obamacare passed, it would have deprived millions of children of the physical and mental health care needed to succeed in them.

A recent study that I presented at the 2017 Federal Reserve Community Development Research Conference found that gaps in kindergarten readiness between high- and low-income children are enormous, and that they haven’t budged in the past 10-15 years—highlighting the need for more intensive policy responses. Other, more hopeful findings may point the way. Data from the same study indicate that parents are increasingly doing their part—reading to their children, singing with them, and playing games—regardless of their social class. So even though today’s low-social class parents are poorer and working odd hours at low-wage jobs, they are devoting the time and resources that science indicates are critical for child development.

Moreover, some states have moved to support children by providing the resources and building the structures and systems needed to get more of them to the starting gate ready to learn. Since 2001, the number of states that fund pre-k programs has increased from 38 to 42 plus DC, and programs now serve twice as many children (700,000 versus almost 1.4 million). Over this time, states meeting all ten of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s quality benchmarks grew from none to seven, including several— Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, and West Virginia—with the highest share of children living in poverty. Despite losing some ground during the recession, pre-k programs fared relatively well, and we must expand this trend.

Moreover, investments are not limited to states. Two of the country’s biggest school districts, Boston and New York City, have developed high-quality pre-k programs that serve all students whose families want to enroll them, and cities from Seattle to San Antonio are also expanding their programs. Studies of the challenges that these initiatives have encountered and addressed provide helpful guidance for other districts.

Another set of studies of diverse districts across the country show how early childhood education can be knitted together with K-12 investments for even stronger and more lasting returns through P-16 whole-child, whole-school, whole-community approaches to education. These range from tiny, semi-rural and heavily white Pea Ridge, Arkansas, which sits in what one leader called “the buckle of the Bible Belt” to the mid-sized city of Vancouver, Washington to economically and racially isolated neighborhoods in Durham, North Carolina and Minneapolis, Minnesota. All of these districts understand the need to nurture both students’ traditional academic skills and their social and emotional skills. They are thus employing varied strategies and funding sources to engage parents and to partner with city and county agencies, service providers, and business and faith leaders to ensure comprehensive supports for children and families: 1) broad investments in children’s early years, like parenting classes and coaches for pre-k teachers; 2) enriching K–12 opportunities in and out of school, from mentors and robot-building to field trips to museums and area universities; and 3) wraparound health and nutrition services, sometimes via school-based health clinics.

Across the districts, the results of these comprehensive approaches are impressive. Not only are low-income children more prepared for kindergarten, but more English Language Learner students are deemed proficient on English and math assessments, and more minority students are taking Advanced Placement courses and graduating from high school. These outcomes reflect the power of aligning quality pre-k with a broader set of investments to sustain and boost early gains. And they are especially needed given the level of disadvantage with which today’s low-SES children enter kindergarten.

While research continues to strengthen the case for early childhood investments, evidence of neither the need for them nor their benefits is new. We have simply failed to act on it, squandering the potential of millions of children. And more recent studies indicate that whole-child K-12 approaches that boost early gains are not only feasible, but deliver lasting benefits. So we must work with additional communities and states to help them enact comprehensive early childhood and, where possible, pre-K-12 strategies backed by supportive state policies and meaningful resources. Then maybe federal policymakers will see the wisdom and begin to support meaningful investments in early childhood education (and beyond).

Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education Campaign based in Washington, D.C.