National initiatives and grassroots political support for early childhood programs

The federal government recently announced the state winners for its Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (ELC). ELC will provide support for states to better coordinate their early childhood programs, provide better assessment of program quality, and provide more consistent universal assessment of kindergarten readiness.

I’m sure that this funding will support useful services and program improvements in the funded states. But what does this all mean for the advancement of early childhood programs in the United States? This blog post will briefly consider that question. (For some other takes on this issue, see Sara Mead’s article in The New Republic, and her other blog posts, as well as ongoing coverage from Early Ed Watch at the New America Foundation.)

My view is that the goal should be for early childhood programs to be of sufficient scale and quality to significantly affect the economic development of our local and national economies, and to significantly affect the distribution of economic opportunities in the United States.  I think it highly unlikely that this goal will ever be achieved through a centralized federal program. There is too much political resistance to federal involvement in early childhood for the federal government to be a consistent partner. Furthermore, from a substantive point of view, early childhood programs should be attuned to local circumstances and values, and should be flexible enough to learn from experience, which is difficult to do with a centralized federal program.

What ultimately will determine the fate of early childhood programs? In my opinion, these programs’ ultimate success rests on the extent of grassroots political support for these programs. Are a majority of voters willing to support increased state and local taxes for these programs?

What determines grassroots political support? Two determinants seem crucial. The first determinant is research support for early childhood programs – such as the evidence from the Perry Preschool program, the Abecedarian program, the Nurse Family Partnership program, the Chicago Child-Parent Center program,  and the various state preschool studies by the National Institute for Early Education Research and others.  I think this research support has helped mobilize the support of many “elite groups” for early childhood programs.

Part of this research support is translating this research evidence into language that some of these elite groups find relevant. For example, there is my own research that translates the research on early childhood programs into effects on state and local economic development goals. Such research extensions are relevant to business groups and many political leaders.

The second determinant is the size of the early childhood program. Grassroots political support depends upon the percentage of all children who have slots in the program and hence can potentially benefit from the program.  The higher the percentage, the more voters can see themselves as having a stake in the program’s future.

The question I am uncertain of is whether the federal funding for ELC will significantly advance these two determinants. I don’t think that the funding for ELC is sufficiently large by itself to significantly expand the percentage of children in funded programs in the assisted states.  However, perhaps ELC will trigger political changes that will significantly expand funded slots in some of these states.

ELC can potentially provide important support for early childhood programs if its data-gathering requirements lead to new, credible evidence on the effectiveness of a diverse array of early childhood programs.  More evidence of successful models would be useful, even if accompanied by evidence of unsuccessful models.

It is unclear to me whether the ELC will actually lead to such credible evidence. I suspect the answer depends to some degree on some yet-to-be-made decisions by the federal government, and by participating state governments, in how the ELC program is actually implemented. To what degree will the additional data gathered be used for rigorous evaluation?  This is unclear.

I hope that the federal and state government officials in charge of ELC use the enhanced data provided in a way that significantly advances our research knowledge about what works. This improved research evidence is not only needed from a scientific perspective, but also to help advance the policy goal of high-quality early childhood programs that are large enough to make a difference.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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