As election season heats up, it’s encouraging to see not only education policy in general, but early childhood education, in particular, getting serious attention. With New York City leading the way, and cities from Boston to Seattle and San Antonio working toward universal pre-k, it’s becoming clear that it is, indeed, possible to scale up quality prekindergarten programs fairly quickly. We must anticipate bumps in the road, and pay close attention to ensure sustained quality. But the bottom line is that these public investments are both wise and workable.
Given the rapid changes in our country’s demographics in recent years, however, and shockingly high rates of child and community poverty, conversations about early childhood investments need to be ratcheted up a few notches.
Millions of parents in states across the country work jobs that provide no time off at all to take care of their new babies. It is hard to fathom how this lays the foundation for healthy child development, let alone stable family life. Others who are searching for jobs at a time when there are five, ten, or even fifty people applying for an open position are hampered by their inability to pay for the child care that makes job hunting feasible. And if they do get the job, it is unlikely to pay enough to cover the cost of that care, which in some states now exceeds in-state college tuition rates. Not to mention the trade-offs among such basics as food, clothing, and rent that those families will be forced to make because wages are so far behind the cost of living.
In other words, as President Obama and Hillary Clinton hint, and Bernie Sanders loudly proclaims, the United States has spent the past few decades gradually becoming the least family- and child-friendly nation in the Western world. Indeed, findings from a study of a recent cohort of kindergarten entrants – children who began school in 2010-2011, and who spent their formative early years in the throes of the Great Recession – provide stark evidence of that sobering reality. When children step foot into their kindergarten classrooms for the first time, gaps in both reading and math skills between those in the highest and lowest social class quintiles are already a full standard deviation in size. To get a sense of how enormous those gaps are, the What Works Clearinghouse estimates that it would take at least four independent, highly effective interventions to close them. Before school even starts.
This election must be about changing that reality and giving our children and their families a real future.
One initiative that is out to do just that is the Make it Work Campaign. Recognizing the depth and breadth of the day-to-day struggles millions of working American families face, Make it Work developed a three-pronged, evidence-based policy agenda to help put our country back on the right public policy footing, laying the foundations to rebuild the middle class we’ve been systematically chipping away at since the early 1980s.
Together, the campaign’s three policy buckets – Equal Pay, Caregiving, and Work and Family – would provide a web of supports that enable parents to live dignified, productive lives, including caring for their children well. In particular, Make it Work’s ambitious goals of affordable child care and accessible high-quality pre-kindergarten for all children, bolstered by living wages for the providers and educators who work with them, alleviate critical stressors for working parents and ensure that all kids get the help they need to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.
While the main focus of this election must be on raising the floor for everyone, however, we can make smart, targeted investments that start to boost those with the greatest needs today. Educare Schools, which now number 18 across 14 states and Washington, DC, offer valuable lessons on how to build comprehensive birth-to-five systems of care and supports for children and their families. From Omaha, where it got its start, to Silicon Valley, where the newest Center opens later this year, Educare “[e]mpowers some of our poorest, most vulnerable children and families to succeed through a coordinated system of home visits, high-quality care and pre-kindergarten, health and nutrition supports, and parent engagement, all centered within those families’ communities.”
And these investments pay off in a big way. Research shows that children who experience Educare for a full five-year course enter elementary school with far more extensive vocabularies and stronger social skills, including self-confidence, persistence, and self-regulation, than their peers. Less touted but also critical are the benefits for parents. As one couple in Omaha described Educare to the filmmakers who produced Ready for Kindergarten, “This place is not just day care. It’s an educational palace. … They are providing a glimpse of hope for us to stand on our own. And one day, we will provide that same help.”
These ingredients – a strong early start for children, sensitive and well-targeted supports for struggling parents, and new hope, with reason to believe in it -- are key to reviving the middle class that is the basis for a thriving democracy. As we enter this election season, we must stand with candidates who call out the policies and policymakers that have devastated that middle class for too long. We must urge them to Make it Work for all of us. And we must insist on more investments in programs like Educare. Anything less would constitute a loss before the first vote is cast.