Early childhood education

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: early childhood education.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Research bolsters the common sense that one-on-one interaction with mom or dad offers the best environment for the development of babies and toddlers. But according to a recent analysis of census data, only about 1 in 5 parents stays home with the children. That means 80 percent send their kids to some form of childcare.

REICHARD: Children whose parents can’t afford the best care often end up falling behind before they ever get to school. That achievement gap can last long past kindergarten. Policymakers are pushing for more government involvement in early childhood programs, and politicians are taking up the cause.

WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones has our story.

LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: Politicians found almost nothing to agree on during the 2018 midterms. But early childhood education offered a rare exception.

On the campaign trail, members of both parties pushed the issue. People like Ohio’s Republican Governor-elect, Mike DeWine.

DEWINE: Ninety percent of brain development occurs, we’re told, during a child’s first five years of life yet educational supports for most children really don’t begin until kindergarten. We must start early when the mother is expecting her baby and through that child’s first few years of life.

And New Mexico’s Democratic Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham.

GRISHAM: We’re going to invest more dollars into our classrooms. We’re going to provide universal pre-k to 3- and 4-year-olds across our state…

And Illinois’ Democratic Governor-elect, J.B. Pritzker

PRITZKER: Over the course of a kid’s education, they are way more likely to graduate from high school, way more likely to graduate from college, to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated when they get quality preschool and child care.

The National Governors Association found candidates in 32 of the 39 gubernatorial races claimed early education as a priority. That’s a broad topic that includes a lot of different initiatives. Still, such agreement on any issue these days is rare.

Aaliyah Samuel is with the National Governors Association. She notes governors from both parties increasingly realize early childhood issues don’t just involve education. They encompass workforce readiness as well.

SAMUEL: If families don’t have access to high quality childcare, then they can’t go to work. Or if they’re going to work to only pay for childcare, that’s yet another issue. And so there’s multiple layers of early childhood that’s important.

Katharine Stevens is an expert in early learning at the American Enterprise Institute. She attributes the increased interest to studies that show a child’s educational development does not begin in kindergarten.

STEVENS: Because what the science is showing is that the first three years of life are foundational for 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds. And then onwards, if you’re talking about focusing on the foundations of development, you don’t focus on 4-year-olds, because that’s not actually the foundation of development.

But agreement on a problem does not mean agreement on policy.

Democrats tend to gravitate toward universal pre-K or Head Start. That’s partly because those programs are tied to existing systems. They essentially expand public schools by one or two more grades. That makes them easier to monitor and control.

Republicans point to studies showing Head Start doesn’t work. But they aren’t unified on what would work. They’re more focused on improving the community-level network of private care providers already serving young children.

STEVENS: What has to happen at the state level and what the federal government, I think, is trying to encourage is big step back, looking at that landscape, looking at where the priorities are in terms of targeting the youngest children and the most disadvantaged children—not in terms of a school system or program history.

In 2015, Congress established a grant program to help states figure out what’s working and what’s not. It’s called the Preschool Development Grants Birth Through Five program. It will dole out some $1 billion over four years to increase participation in high-quality early learning programs.

Stevens, with AEI, calls the grant program a breakthrough. That’s because it doesn’t establish a new, federally funded initiative. Instead, it seeks to bolster existing networks of childcare options and emphasizes parental choice.

STEVENS: If you are able to empower parents to choose among options, then you don’t need to have a kind of a top-down coordinated system because the parents are driving the market.

The first round of grants roll out early next year. They will focus on evaluating needs. The second round starts in 2020 and will show how states intend to implement solutions. That’s when the partisan differences are likely to emerge.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.

(Photo/Governor Tom Wolf, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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