Because we can’t take our Early Learning Nation Studio on the road during this time, stay tuned as ELN recaps Top Takeaways from important conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. And visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.
We’re major fans of The Hunt Institute’s Early Efforts series of webinars moderated by Dan Wuori, Ph.D., who is not only unfailingly eloquent but also thoroughly well versed in the nuances of policy and the implications for young learners.
The December 7 event brought together an especially wide-ranging panel of experts and leaders from across the country. The conversation focused on advances at the state level during 2021. Here are our takeaways:
1. There is power in the network. Helene Stebbins, M.P.P., executive director of The Alliance for Early Success, introduced the recently released 2021 edition of the 50-State Progress Report on Early Childhood Policy. In her introduction, she writes that the report “tells the story of a national community of state advocates who leaned on their networks and each other to effectively pursue two goals at once: shepherding relief funds intended for young children and their families while, at the same time, working aggressively on their strategic agendas.”
2. Conservative states chalked up significant wins. Alabama (which is featured in the documentary Starting at Zero;read more) saw one of the largest-ever increases for its top-quality First Class Pre-K program ($24.4 million), bringing the program’s level of funding to $151 million and access to 42% of the state’s four-year-olds. Dr. Barbara Cooper, secretary of the state’s Department of Early Childhood, emphasized the mixed-delivery nature of its landscape and prioritization of the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS).
Advocates in Georgia are celebrating the launch of a new task force for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. (Read more.)
Advocates and policymakers in South Carolina worked together to champion expansion of its pre-K program.
Georgia Mjartan, executive director of South Carolina First Steps, mentioned the involvement of corporate titan Boeing in the campaign.
Sometimes victories lie in stopping harmful policies. Activists in West Virginia helped to defeat a proposal to eliminate the state personal income tax, which eventually would have resulted in a loss of over 40% of state revenue.
3. Prenatal is the new early childhood. The latest California state budget features new reimbursements for Community Health Workers, doula services, access to telehealth and dyadic (mother-infant) care benefits to serve Medi-Cal members.
Ted Lempert, president of the advocacy group Children Now, said policymakers are increasingly viewing their work through a racial equity lens.
Virginia’s budget reflected an unprecedented emphasis on maternal health and prenatal health care benefits, particularly for women of color. Among other provisions, a Medicaid-funded doula benefit is now available for eligible moms. Stephanie Spencer of Urban Baby Beginnings said the commitment stemmed from Governor Ralph Northam’s personal experience as a pediatric neurologist.
4. Governance matters. Each state has its own constitution and administrative structure, and adjustments that prioritize early childhood can improve delivery of services.
Colorado elevated early childhood to a cabinet-level department, advanced family child care, removed barriers to opportunity for families who lack proper documentation and expanded early childhood mental health systems and access. Bill Jaeger of the Colorado Children’s Campaign praised the leadership of Emily Sirota—mother, social worker and state representative.
North Dakota consolidated early childhood programs into one division. In his emotional remarks, Chris Jones, director of the state’s department of Human Services, hailed the Aspen Institute and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation for introducing him to innovations in Alabama and Georgia. “Organizational structure and what’s on paper are one thing,” he said. “Culture and empathy are what count. We stand in the shoes of parents and families.”
5. New laws make a difference.
In New Jersey, a new universal home visiting law guarantees all new parents at least one free home visit from a nurse within two weeks of the child’s birth, with the option of receiving two more within the next three months.
Washington State’s Fair Start for Kids Act enhances families’ access and affordability for high-quality early learning programs, including child care and the state’s pre-K program. Additional provisions include subsidized health care for workers playgroups for family, friend and neighbor (FFN) networks and extra pay for multilingual workers. “To make an entire industry work, it takes many levers,” said Tana Senn of the Washington State House of Representatives.
The fate of the child care provisions in the Build Back Better Act loomed heavily over the event, because a great deal of future progress at the state level hinges on potential federal support. Since we can’t see the future, however, the recent past is an important guide.
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.