Reed: States Must Step in to Give Youngest Learners the Foundation to Succeed

Many states are investing more in early care and education than ever before. Some guidelines for making that funding count

Group of small nursery school children sitting on floor indoors in classroom, clapping

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With President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan stalled, states are taking it upon themselves to reconsider how to give the nation’s youngest learners a strong start. This year, more than 28 governors highlighted the importance of investing in early care and education in their 2022 State of the State addresses. From Washington to Ohio to New York — and many more — states are increasing investment in their children and redefining their early childhood landscape for years to come.

This moment is so critical because study after study shows that the nation is not meeting the needs of young children and working families. For decades, the approach to early care and education funding and governance has been fractured, leading to a fractured approach to delivery. These services subsist on a complex maze of inadequate funding streams from a multitude of public and private sources. This complexity makes it difficult for the various state agencies to agree upon a single set of standards or funding priorities for early childhood education. Without that consistent foundation, it is difficult for states to hold providers accountable for the quality of their programming and nearly impossible to ensure equitable and affordable access for all the children they intend to serve. When these programs aren’t available or effective, all health and human services, from criminal justice to health care to K-12 education, are burdened.

Decades of research demonstrate the long-term benefits of quality early care and education programs. It’s time for states to reimagine how they allocate and assess funding so the nation’s youngest learners have the foundation to succeed. Here’s how:

Understand where children are and what their families need 

In a project with the Illinois Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, an analysis by Afton Partners uncovered deep disparities between many communities’ early childhood needs and the programming available. In one community just outside Chicago, there is one spot available for every 3.5 children under 6. These patterns are seen nationwide, not just in Illinois.

But ensuring access is much more than a simple math equation in which the number of slots equals the number of children. For states to understand families’ needs at the hyper-local level, they need direct engagement. These needs could include preferences for different types of providers, location and time of day, services in secondary languages and culturally responsive programming. Based on the commission’s findings, Illinois launched 39 Birth to Five Councils, organized by geography and composed of local representatives, to gather input from families on their needs and preferences. These will, in turn, inform state policies and funding priorities in each region. The state will then use the information to determine how to better allocate early childhood resources to reflect and respect local needs.

Evaluate where resources are going 

With many funding streams supporting early care and education, it’s difficult to develop a complete financial picture, particularly when funding is being managed by different state and federal agencies and cross-agency data systems are inadequate. 

States must understand the sources of funding, agencies responsible for them and how they’re allocated to maximize newly proposed federal or state contributions. This analysis requires data transparency, because only when states can track all dollars collectively can they figure out which families may not have access to quality early childhood programming and therefore where to direct new funding. Illinois is doing this work in more than 750 communities to answer the questions: Where is money going today from all early childhood funding sources? How equitable is this distribution? And what will it take to reach a level of “adequate” funding in each community? Having answers to these questions will allow for smarter, equity-informed decisions on where the next available dollars will go.

Create a new funding system that is simple, transparent and equitable

When funding is managed by several state and local agencies, they often do not have unified priorities and standards, leading to inaccessible and inequitable programming. Too often, state agencies are making decisions in silos and letting the outcomes be driven by inputs, rather than the other way around. 

Whether working through a centralized agency or a coalition, states must align on priorities — including how to allocate limited resources for highest-need families. This can be possible only when there are defined values, policies and systems that govern early care and education. 

Build capacity and invest in data systems 

The ability to analyze community needs and preferences, funding allocation and program access are the building blocks of accessible and effective early childhood programming in a state. However, many states do not have the ability to collect information to build this understanding or the capacity to make meaning of it. States must collect data to analyze the current equity and access landscape, as well as recognize future needs and trends. They must then have the funding and governance structures in place to act on that data and allocate resources accordingly. Each state’s early childhood system must have the capacity to adapt to communities’ changing needs, increase affordable access to quality programs as funding becomes available and help providers meet standards so children and their families get the support they deserve. This all starts with strong data systems, which can better enable smart decision-making that positively impacts families. 

With increased federal support stalled, states are reconsidering the extent of their investment in our nation’s children. Now is the time to ensure that improved funding and governance structures are used to increase equitable access to high-quality programs that support the nation’s families. Laying this strong foundation, together, will build the capacity to ensure a bright future for every child. Katie Reed is a managing director at Afton Partners, an organization that partners with the public sector to analyze and transform funding policy and practice.

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