Congressional Attention Sought for Early-Childhood Education

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Scientists and early education experts on Capitol Hill yesterday urged Congress to work toward reversing some of the adverse effects of poverty, as they gathered to review the research on young children’s development and education.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who convened the “National Summit on America’s Children,” said she appreciated the work of nonprofit organizations and public-private partnerships. But she hinted that she would like to see children’s issues become a higher priority for the 110th Congress.

“We also have to have a strong public role,” Ms. Pelosi said. “It’s about children, but it’s also about America.”

Speakers at the daylong session included researchers focusing on early brain development—the science that helped to ignite policymakers’ interest in spending more on early-childhood education programs more than a decade ago.

“Neuroscience tells us that it’s not our genes alone that make us who are,” said Pat Levitt, a professor of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “Brains, like skills, are built over time.”

Others talked about the more current topic of the economic benefits of enrolling more disadvantaged children in high-quality early-childhood programs. Research showing long-term benefits to society is another reason why many elected officials are convinced that they should further expand preschool.

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, said economists often talk about trade-offs in choosing one policy strategy over another. But he argued that cost-benefit comparisons are largely beside the point for well-designed preschool programs for children at risk of school failure.

“Investing in disadvantaged children is one policy where the choice is clear,” he said, adding that the return on investment for such programs is much higher than for other popular education reforms, such as reducing class sizes.

In another session, Karen Ponder, the former president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children, highlighted the progress of that state’s Smart Start program. Launched during then-Gov. James B. Hunt’s administration, Smart Start focuses on improving child-care and preschool programs in the state’s 100 counties, using both public and private money.

While county leaders have focused on various priorities, Ms. Ponder said that, overall, children served by the program are healthier, show higher mathematics and language skills, and are better behaved in school that those who have not received services.

The state, which used to have some of the lowest child-care standards in the country, now has a five-star rating system that helps parents seek out high-quality programs. And some of the state’s poorest children are attending programs that have received four or five stars, the top two ratings.

Policy Recommendations

Some of the presenters refrained from recommending specific actions. Jack P. Shonkoff, a professor of child health and development at Harvard University, said many researchers want to share scientific findings with policymakers and business leaders, but don’t want to get involved in policy.

“We don’t want to be a resource for any particular agenda,” he said. “We want to be a resource for science.”

Others, however, weren’t shy about mentioning specific suggestions, such as expanding the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit to benefit more poor families, and not allowing the State Child Health Insurance Program to replace Medicaid coverage for young children.

Throughout the day, several Democratic members of the House stopped in to hear the sessions. Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, for example, asked which policies members of Congress should support.

Mr. Shonkoff answered that raising standards for early-childhood education programs would have the broadest effects because so many children are in care while their parents are working. But he said policymakers also should focus efforts on improving circumstances for young children who are in desperate situations because of abuse, neglect, or severe poverty—problems that some of the speakers said can create “toxic stress.”

He also moved to address potential criticism from those who might not support more public involvement.

“The question is not about whether the government should be raising children, because it can’t,” he said.

While the event was chaired by Democrats, Sheri Steisel, a federal-affairs counsel at the Washington office of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that “bipartisan consensus” will be necessary for legislation to advance.

“I think it’s encouraging that the federal government is interested,” she said, but added that she hopes members of Congress will “consider state flexibility and not try to force one vision.”

Others said they hoped the enthusiasm of the day wouldn’t wear off soon.

Helen Blank, the director of leadership and public policy at the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, said, “I hope it lasts long enough to affect the appropriations process.”

Vol. 26

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