Opinion

Early childhood learning: States lead the way | GUEST OP

By Gerrit Westerveld
For the Auburn Reporter

Democrats and Republicans don't agree on much these days. But there is one thing on which they do see eye to eye: the value of early childhood education.

Once an afterthought of America's education system, early learning now is front and center as educators, governors and legislators grapple with ways to better prepare children for a lifetime of success.

The Obama administration announced that nine states – California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington – will receive grants under the federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, a $500 million project intended to jumpstart programs that educate our youngest learners. These states are led by Republican, Democratic and independent governors.

In fact, more than two-thirds of the nation's governors – 17 Republicans and 18 Democrats – applied for federal money to develop early learning programs. They represented states large and small and scattered throughout every region of the country, from Maine to Hawaii, Washington to Florida.

While only a handful of states won grants, one thing is clear: There is a strong, bipartisan, national movement to establish and improve early childhood education. And it's not going away.

Just look at what this competition already has accomplished. The 35 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) that applied for grants first had to examine their own approaches to early childhood education and make sure they had policies in place to improve quality, build connections and support children and families. That work alone increased awareness of and appreciation for the importance of early learning and gave new momentum to the issue within state capitols.

Leaders in all those states and more now realize that we must start long before kindergarten to give children the tools they need to flourish during their school years and throughout their lives. This is exactly what funders, advocates, practitioners and experts intended when they began to lay the groundwork for change more than a decade ago.

States have been leading the way. The BUILD Initiative, created by philanthropies through the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, has worked with nine states – Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington – to develop early learning systems that support the National Education Goal that "all children start school ready to learn."

These states have been pioneers in creating a comprehensive approach to early childhood policies that respond to child health, nutrition, mental health, family support, and early care and education needs for young children and their families.

Even the states that did not win grants are making progress. They now have detailed plans on how to improve early learning opportunities and the support of a burgeoning movement that includes parents, philanthropists, business leaders and high-ranking government officials. It is a movement led by states and fueled by private-sector energy and philanthropic resources – historically a potent combination for bringing about social change.

The movement also will grow because states will learn from each other. The BUILD Initiative and the First Five Years Fund, leaders in strengthening the connection between early childhood and the K-12 community, have formed the Early Learning Challenge Collaborative to tap into this collective expertise from the states. The collaborative will continue to share with all states the best thinking for improving the quality and effectiveness of early learning programs.

Education in general and early learning in particular is one of the smartest investments America can make, not only for our children, but for our country's economic wellbeing. Success in the workplace begins with success in the early grades.

State leaders understand that, and have taken steps to give children a strong start by educating them from the moment they are born.

Research by Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman bears out the impact of early learning on the economy. He found that investing in early childhood education closes the achievement gap, reduces the need for special education, increases the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lowers the crime rate, and reduces overall social costs. Heckman estimates that for every dollar invested in early childhood education, there is a 10-percent per year return on investment.

For the last decade, the nine BUILD states and others have developed early learning systems that put Heckman's theory into action. These states have worked to improve early childhood education because they know that children are born learning, and that nurturing their early development and the ability of their families to support them strengthens their chances for long-term success.

Isn't that what we all want for our children?

Gerrit Westervelt is executive director of the BUILD Initiative, a national project created by the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative to help states improve and align policies and services for young children.

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