Beyond Pre-kindergarten: Evidence and State-Level Action

A new policy guide from  the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) and the Schott Foundation’s Opportunity to Learn Campaign shows how to build high-quality early support systems for children that strengthen communities and families, promote and sustain early education, and enable children to thrive. It also covers ways to resolve one of our nation’s most intractable problems: the academic achievement gap.

We know that children arrive at kindergarten with already large gaps that divide them along lines of race, ethnicity, and social class. We know, too, that these gaps prove stubbornly difficult to close, and that they are very often widened by disparities in access to appropriately credentialed teachers, small classes, school resources, health care, nutritious meals, and other related factors.

The Economic Policy Institute, where BBA is housed, has been a leader not only in documenting these gaps, but in producing research showing how to narrow them before they get so hard to tackle. For example, in 2007, EPI calculated the economic and social benefits of investing in a voluntary, high-quality publicly funded prekindergarten program that would narrow gaps by helping disadvantaged students achieve their full potential. Seven years later, this is a cornerstone of President Obama’s proposal for early childhood investments, and of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act bills proposed by leaders in both houses of Congress.

Today, we know more than ever about how infant and toddler brain development works, what kinds of stimulating and enriching interactions and experiences bolster that development, and how we can best tailor public investments. We also see unprecedented need for supports for children and their families, as demands on working parents grow just as basics such as child care become increasingly out of reach. As the guide documents, we live in a country in which virtually half of all U.S. students are eligible for subsidized school meals, as they are living in households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line.

Various states’ programs and policies offer models for how the right investments could put disadvantaged U.S. children on a more even playing field with their better-off peers, and raise American educational performance overall. Now is the time to help other states learn from those successes and advance federal investments that can help turn those building blocks into a true system of quality early childhood supports.

This guide starts where the gaps begin—before birth—and offers a nuts-and-bolts set of state-level strategies and legislation that policymakers can adapt to build toward a comprehensive system of early supports for young children and their families. For example, the District of Columbia leverages federal Medicaid policy to support its at-risk residents with enhanced supports for pregnant women that increase their access to prenatal vitamins, psychosocial and medical risk services, genetic screenings, and smoking cessation services. Research shows that these can reduce the numbers of preterm and low-birthweight births and, thus, improve babies’ odds of healthy early development and, ultimately, educational success.

Just as paid sick leave is critically important for workers’ well-being and productivity, paid parental leave is critical to helping adapt to being parents and to laying the foundation for strong parenting and healthy child development. The United States is unique among not only its Western peers, but virtually every country on earth, in failing to provide guaranteed paid leave for new parents. California is among a handful of states to respond to this need with legislation that provides up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, but momentum is growing to advance the spread of such policies.

Screenings for health problems and developmental delays, and supportive services to address any issues that are detected, are another key component of a comprehensive system of early supports. Done right, screenings can improve children’s early health and help avert costly impediments to school success. Connecticut has emerged as a leader in this policy area through its efforts to increase access to screenings and follow-up services.

The guide also highlights examples of smart strategies that states are enacting with support from various federal initiatives, including both longstanding policies such as Child Care and Development Block Grants and Early Head Start, and newer ones such as the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund and the Affordable Care Act. Together, these federal funding sources help states build high-quality home-visiting programs, as New Mexico and Colorado are doing, that bolster at-risk mothers’ health, parenting, and job skills and infants’ early development. These federal resources provide tools for states to enhance the quality of subsidized child care, as we are seeing in Louisiana and Illinois, and to address concerns regarding mental health issues, as in Indiana.

Finally, the guide looks at how states can leverage these and other federal and state resources to align and knit together their programs and support them with policies that enhance access and increase sustainability. Such system-building is the current frontier for early childhood policy, and, by extension, education policy writ large.

As EPI has insisted for over a dozen years, we are never going to close race- and income-based achievement gaps until we address major inequalities at the starting gate. This guide provides a superb roadmap to help states start doing just that.