74 Interview: Save the Children’s Mark Shriver on Creating a Powerhouse Lobby for the Powerless

Mark Shriver, Save the Children vice president of U.S. programs, sits with 9-year-old Justin Patrick. (Photo courtesy: Save the Children Action Network)

See previous 74 interviews, including 2017 Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee, former education secretary John King, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The full archive is here.

There have been remarkable expansions in early childhood education in the U.S. in recent years, but young kids need a real lobbying force to rival the top influence groups, argues Mark Shriver, president of the Save the Children Action Network.

“What I like to say is we want to be the NRA for kids,” Shriver said, referring to the National Rifle Association, the political powerhouse whose legislative positions and lobbying muscle have been criticized, even as it has managed to keep new gun rules off the books despite a wave of mass shootings.

“Whether you agree with the NRA or not, they’re politically relevant … There isn’t that voice for kids. Kids don’t vote, kids don’t give campaign contributions, and politicians don’t make them the priority they should,” Shriver said.

Most know Save the Children for its international humanitarian aid work. Though that makes up the bulk of its work, it was founded in the U.S. and still works in 16 states.

Save the Children Action Network was started in 2014 and focuses on expanding high-quality early learning in the U.S. and improving maternal and newborn health and safety globally. As a 501(c)4, the group can also make campaign contributions.

The group had a high-profile victory in July after its successful push for full-day kindergarten in New Hampshire.

(The 74: A New Push for Early Ed: While Some States Expand Pre-K, Most Don’t Require (or Fund) Full-Day Kindergarten)

Last month, actress Jennifer Garner, a Save the Children board member, went to Kentucky, where the organization spends about $9 million a year. She visited an elementary school where officials say children have seen marked academic gains because of Save the Children’s funding of early childhood, literacy, and math programs.

More frustrating for Shriver’s organization has been the GOP tax reform bill and its failure to expand the federal child care tax credit, something President Donald Trump promised during his campaign.

Advocates had urged lawmakers, so far unsuccessfully, to raise the limits on it — currently up to $3,000 for one child or $6,000 for two or more — and make it refundable, meaning it can reduce a tax bill below $0.

Shriver slammed the House bill Nov. 10, saying it “fails kids and treats them as an afterthought while special interests are rewarded with billions of dollars in tax breaks.”

The Senate also didn’t touch the child care tax credit, but a revised version of its bill currently pending in committee increases the child tax credit (different from the one covering child care expenses) from $1,650 to $2,000.

“While the Child Tax Credit is a valuable resource for many families, it does not directly address the rapidly rising cost of high-quality child care. We are working with members of the Senate to expand and enhance the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is designed specifically to help families afford quality child care, and make it refundable for low-income families. Right now, [the tax credit] is merely retained in the House and Senate plans, which is not enough,” Shriver said in an emailed statement to The 74.

Shriver is the son of Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What is the biggest hurdle to getting more funding for early childhood education?

Shriver: You see bipartisan support for early childhood education on Capitol Hill. You see it in state governments as well. It does have bipartisan support; it’s just not at the level where it should be.

I think this is the most important economic and social justice question that our country is facing. If you look at it economically, you have folks like Jim Heckman, Nobel Prize–winning economist out of the University of Chicago, talking about high-quality early childhood education, 13 percent savings per kid per year. It’s a huge economic issue.

It’s a huge, I think, social justice issue, obviously for poor kids, when they’re entering kindergarten so far behind kids who are not living in poverty. I think you’re seeing in the country, over the last five to seven years, increased support for it, increased awareness of the economic argument, increased awareness of the brain scans that are coming out of universities that show brain growth for kids that are stimulated in high-quality early childhood education … We can actually see that the brain is growing more. It’s amazing …

There are a lot of competing priorities. Kids don’t vote, and poor kids in particular and poor families don’t have the economic resources to play in the political arena. Save the Children Action Network, what I like to say is we want to be the NRA for kids. Whether you agree with the NRA or not, they’re politically relevant because they have people on the grassroots that are fired up about the issue. They are engaged in the communications arena, meaning they’re writing letters to the editor or op-eds. They’re involved in the political arena, they’re raising money, and they’re holding politicians accountable on their issue.

There isn’t that voice for kids. Kids don’t vote, kids don’t give campaign contributions, and politicians don’t make them the priority they should.

How broad is the support for early childhood? Is it mostly limited to parents?

There is a pretty broad group of people who are interested in this issue and are interested in making kids a priority.

You get it from high school students: We have programs in high schools across the country and in colleges … [The group has 46 student ambassadors at eight high schools and 15 colleges across seven states.]

You get men and women involved in it, and you get Republicans and Democrats. It’s a bipartisan issue. A lot of people claim that their issue is bipartisan. This one, the polling shows that it’s bipartisan support. People want to invest in early ed. But the political leadership in many cases is lagging behind the people’s desires and the people’s preference. That’s what makes it a challenge, but that’s what also makes it exciting.

We are making progress. We see it in states like New Hampshire, where Save the Children Action Network has worked for the last couple of years. You also see, you know, broad support around it. We did polling up in New Hampshire, which is a pretty purple state — it’s not liberal; it’s not conservative — and 85 percent of the voters wanted the governor to make early education a high priority. Almost 70 percent wanted to fund full-day kindergarten, even if there was an increase in their cigarette taxes … That’s pretty good, really good.

Could you tell me more about the program you have for high school students?

We have a high school student program and college program, trying to get kids engaged at that age, starting clubs at their schools, engaging their fellow students and teachers on both of these issues … They’re writing letters to the editor, they’re tabling at events, they’re signing petitions, getting their classmates to sign petitions to both their local elected officials as well as their federally elected officials.

A bunch of students have come to Washington for our advocacy summit, which is a two-and-a-half-day training and a day spent on the Hill lobbying their legislators. You can go in there and go in with a cross-section of people, a couple of high school [students], maybe a college student, and then people from the senator or congressman’s state or district, and it leaves an impression on them. These are young folks who are actively engaged, who are taking time out of school, learning about the issue, taking time out of school to go across the country and express their opinions to elected officials and leave an impression …

It’s training the next generation of leaders, and it’s not even the next generation — they’re leading today.

I know Save the Children Action Network was a big advocate in the push for full-day kindergarten in New Hampshire. Have any other states made big moves on early childhood since the start of the year?

Obviously we’re thrilled about what happened in New Hampshire. There’s more work to be done. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a strong, strong step in the right direction. Save the Children Action Network spent a lot of money in that campaign. [Republican] Gov. [Chris] Sununu, we didn’t think was on the right side of the issue, but, to his credit, he took a meeting … and he really pushed all-day kindergarten. I’ve written publicly a number of times about how grateful we are for his leadership …

We worked with volunteers in Seattle to pass an increase in the sugar-sweetened-beverage-industry tax, and that will commit a good chunk of money to early childhood education in that city. In Iowa, we worked to try to change the regulations on how that state can spend some of its early childhood money, and that passed as well. We worked in South Carolina, specifically on funding for Save the Children’s work in South Carolina, and a bunch of our volunteers got very much involved in that, and that passed as well … There’s progress on a bunch of different levels. Obviously there’s a lot more work to be done, but I’m optimistic.

In New Hampshire, the kindergarten expansion is funded through legalized Keno gambling. In Seattle, it’s a tax on soda. President Barack Obama had proposed funding his preschool expansion by increasing cigarette taxes. Are you concerned about funding these programs through such specific taxes rather than from the general fund or regular school funding formula?

…Sugar [drink] tax, Keno, cigarette tax, those in many cases are diminishing revenue streams. So is it ideal? No. Is it a step in the right direction? Yes. Will it help kids today? Yes. Will it show that this is a great investment? I’m confident that it will. Will that then propel politicians to lead in the future? That’s what I’m hoping will happen.

It sounds like your philosophy on this is, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

… A lot of advocates want the perfect. They won’t settle for anything but the perfect, and you don’t make as much progress as you could every year. If we expand all-day kindergarten in a state like New Hampshire or more services for kids in Seattle, those kids are only 3, 4 years old once in their life. These are huge gaps that we spend billions of dollars trying to remediate later when they’re in second, third, fourth grade, etc.

If we can get it up and running today, tomorrow, it has a dramatic impact on those kids’ lives and it shows that progress can be made. Too often politicians, they follow, they don’t get out in front and lead. I think this is a great chance to show them strong data, show them strong programs, and then they’ll follow and invest more dollars going forward.

Besides battles over funding for programs like Head Start, it seems like reauthorizing the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which expires in September, is the next federal early childhood issue. Why is that program important, and why do you think it’s relatively unknown?

When you look at the development of a kid, let’s say in the first eight years of life, that’s that critical birth through third grade, you see huge brain growth happening. You see kids that are 4 years of age living in poverty that are 18 months behind kids that don’t live in poverty, which is a stunning statistic … We spend billions trying to remediate that.

We’ve seen the data that shows that home visiting programs help stimulate that child cognitively, socially, and emotionally to enter kindergarten ready to learn. I think this is a new area, relatively speaking, where the data is and where public dollars should be invested.

A lot of people don’t know about it. A lot of people think schooling starts at kindergarten or maybe pre-K, but really it starts, obviously, you know, at birth … [Home visiting is] a huge opportunity and the government is moving in that direction, [but] not fast enough … I think it’s going to take years to have a robust home visiting system in this country, but it’s really important.

It’s almost a no-brainer — it is a no-brainer — there’s just no political will behind it because, again, big businesses, big lobbying firms, they’re pushing special interests that have votes and political power and money behind it. Poor families that are struggling to meet child care costs or educate their babies, they don’t have any political juice.

[Editor’s note: Congress allowed both the federal home visiting program, which serves some 160,000 families, and CHIP, the children’s health insurance program that serves 9 million, to lapse at the end of the fiscal year. As of mid-November, neither had been reauthorized.]

One of the things that always surprised me was how much law enforcement backs both home visiting specifically and early childhood education on a larger scale. It just isn’t something you think they’d focus on.

We’ve worked with sheriffs and law enforcement in New Hampshire who are very much in favor of the all-day kindergarten bill, because they understand the connection of the people they’re locking up and their academic achievements …

So does the military, by the way. Generally speaking, there’s a lot of military support for increasing early childhood education because they know that those kids will then graduate from high school, maybe get an [associate’s] degree or a four-year degree, and they’ll be better soldiers … They don’t have the workforce in the military to defend the country.

Police, sheriffs, and the military do a lot of work in this area because they understand this is an economic competitiveness and a military competitiveness issue.

… That’s the question, is how do we create a movement where people demand of our political leaders that they do these investments. That’s why we created Save the Children Action Network, because, if you think about, what’s the AARP or the NRA or AIPAC [a group focused on strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and Israel], PhRMA [the pharmaceutical lobby], these are entities that have a lot of say in the political process. What’s that for kids?

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