Lost in the Policy Woods? Finding Your Way to Equity and Access with the Zaentz Navigator - Early Learning Nation

Lost in the Policy Woods? Finding Your Way to Equity and Access with the Zaentz Navigator

Imagine you work for an advocacy organization in one state and you want to find out how other states are raising revenue to support early education and care. If you Google child care tax revenue or daycare tax payments, almost all the results pertain to the tax credits that individuals can apply for when they file their taxes. Refining your search terms might give you better results, but it might take hours to track down the most useful and relevant sources.

The Zaentz Navigator, a new tool from the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, makes the search easier and more productive. For example….

Early Learning Nation magazine interviewed the Zaentz Institute’s Nonie K. Lesaux (Co-Director) and Jackie Ramos-Draper (Research and Policy Analyst) to discover how the tool came about and what the plans are for improving it.

When you go to the Navigator (thankfully, there is no login or password to remember), your search is organized into what Ramos-Draper calls the five pillars that support an equitable, high-quality early education and care system: Infrastructure and Systems, Dedicated Funding Streams, Cost Estimation for Subsidies, Expansion of Child Care and Early Childhood Education Services, and Workforce. Lesaux notes that they are discussing adding a sixth pillar for infant and toddler programs, but the plan is to keep the number limited to preserve simplicity. Search results often lead users to The Harvard Early Learning study, a longitudinal study following 4,000 Massachusetts children.

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“We’re researchers at our core,” says Lesaux. “We’re also deeply committed to trying to be really helpful to the field. Our mission is to broker knowledge.” She says the Navigator arose in response to the need for resources on how states and cities were making policy. “Professionals from around the country were consistently asking, ‘What are other places doing?’ Tools like this exist for K-12 education and in public health, but not in early childhood.”

“Alongside other supports, the Navigator is a promising tool to help advocates and leaders use precious time and resources efficiently as they strive to build a stronger, more equitable early education system for families, young children and early educators.” — Michelle Kang, CEO, National Association for the Education of Young Children

Lesaux keeps these users in mind at every step of the design process. “They have no time and not a lot of bandwidth to ideate. The more we can help them get to the information they need, the better they will ideate.”

Ramos-Draper says she imagines staff at a city or state government office or an advocacy organization “digging through press releases, PDFs of community presentations from 10 years ago, budgets or bills and executive orders. If their goal is replication and customization, it would be really difficult to find all the information they need. That frustration might deter them from bringing about meaningful policy change. With the Navigator, they have an organized place for discovering the processes by which these strategies were implemented or passed.”

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Lesaux and Draper describe the present moment as one of both opportunity and risk. On one hand, the American public cares more than ever before about disparities in access to quality care. On the other, as American Rescue Plan funding fades, cities and states need to identify revenue streams to sustain systems.

Designed for constant improvement, the Navigator initially went out to a testing group of 19 people representing a cross section in the field. “They told us they’ve never had anything like this before,” says Lesaux. “They said they would be using it all the time, and, of course, they asked for even more features—such as information from more cities.”

Minnesota Representative Dave Pinto reported, “I’ve been considering how our state might dedicate a funding source for early care and education. I’ve known that other states (and cities) have done this, but researching exactly what they’ve done would be a major project. Having this information in one place is an enormous help. In fact, within five minutes of being on the site, I had come across a promising approach that I had not heard of before.”

Since the tool’s initial launch, the team has added several new features, including additional search filtration options, downloadable tables and data visualizations, and more options for sharing content.

While the Navigator continues to expand and improve, plans are also developing to demonstrate its usefulness at conferences and roundtables around the country, where Lesaux, Ramos-Draper and others will present patterns and trends that the tool reveals. Peer-support tools will facilitate city-to-city and state-to-state collaboration. An in-person Navigator Institute kicked off in December, with teams from Georgia, Vermont, California and other states coming to Cambridge, Mass., to explore a policy challenge alongside the Zaentz Initiative experts.

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.

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