Yasmina Vinci--one of the smartest people working in early childhood policy today--has a great op-ed in the Huffington Post this week calling out candidates for the presidency and other elected offices, members of the press, and voters themselves for failing to pay more attention to early childhood education in the current electoral campaign. She also includes some bonus history about Ronald Reagan’s track record on Head Start in the early 1980s (hint: it may not be what you’d expect).
Vinci make some important points--presidential and other federal candidates have been largely silent on early childhood education in this election, even though the federal government actually plays a much larger role in early childhood than it does in K-12 education. But she doesn’t really get into the reasons why candidates pay so little attention to early childhood issues. My primary hypotheses are;
- Policymakers still don’t see early childhood as critical for our national well-being and economic competitiveness, on par with K-12 education, health care, and so forth. Despite abundant research showing that investments in early childhood education carry long-term economic and fiscal benefits, policymakers still see early childhood primarily as a “nice guy” issue about doing good things for impoverished families and little kids--not an economic issue or one that’s relevant to non-low-income voters.
- Policymakers still don’t believe it works. Yes, there are studies showing that high-quality early childhood education CAN have positive impacts on children’s lives. But that doesn’t mean policymakers have confidence that additional spending on pre-k programs WILL have positive impacts. That’s partly a reflection of the growing acceptance of decades of conservative argument that government programs don’t work. It’s also shaped by a widely held belief among federal policymakers, shaped in part by the Head Start Impact study, that Head Start is ineffective (in fact, the research tells a much more nuanced story). Finally, very few policymakers have actually had the opportunity to visit a truly high-quality early childhood program and see and understand what high-quality preschool programs look like and the impact they can have for kids. Until many more policymakers have a chance to see these, early childhood advocacy efforts will continue to suffer from the suspicion that this is really just babysitting.
- The media has proven either incapable of or uninterested in covering early childhood education narratives other than “mommy wars” and “it’s hard to get into Elite preschools in Manhattan.” This it both irresponsible and incredibly stupid. The mommy wars narrative has become increasingly boring and trite over the last decade. But there is an incredible wealth of high-quality research and innovative initiatives in early childhood today--work done by people like Bob Pianta and Bridget Hamre at UVA, Susan Landry in Texas, and Teach for America’s large but little known early childhood program, just to name a few--that is incredibly interesting from a science, parenting, and narrative perspective and ideal fodder for long-form magazine coverage. Some forward-looking media types need to start finding ways to cover these stories.
There are probably other factors in play, too, and I’d love to hear what readers/commenters think on this.
Until the early childhood community and its allies in philanthropy and policy begin to address the above issues, I won’t hold my breath on seeing more early childhood time in debates any time soon.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.