In an election that drew historic turnout among Americans and mixed results for the two main political parties, there is at least one issue that collected victories up and down the ballot: early childhood education.
From the election of Democrat Joe Biden, to a statewide ballot measure in Colorado and a handful of local ballot initiatives, voters threw their support behind people and policies that will support publicly funded preschool programs.
Early childhood education has “taken on the mantle of being a strongly bipartisan issue” in recent years, notes Dan Wuori, director of early learning at the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Duke University that aims to improve education policy. That bipartisan support no doubt helped carry some of these ballot issues.
Javaid E. Siddiqi, president and CEO of the Hunt Institute, adds that there is a “groundswell” of support for early childhood education among the public as well, and it comes at a time when the field is being reshaped by the COVID-19 crisis.
Sahar Muranovic, a universal preschool advocate and proponent of the measure that passed in Portland, Ore., says the pandemic “definitely brought a lot more attention to the issue” of child care, and likely helped voters with their decision.
“I absolutely think the devastating consequences of COVID-19 exacerbated the inequities and the lack of safety nets in place,” Muranovic tells EdSurge. “Any time we would go out and talk to folks about this measure, especially for families and parents, it was an ‘Oh, my gosh, absolutely yes.’ There was newfound enthusiasm and awareness about it.”
Below are three wins for early childhood education, spanning national, state and local elections.
The Election of Joe Biden
The most obvious, and significant, outcome of the 2020 election is the ascent of Joe Biden to the presidency.
This in itself amounts to a win for early childhood education, says the Hunt Institute’s Wuori. “President-elect Biden’s plans for caregiving, including early childhood and elder care, is detailed and ambitious and reflects a lot of what the early childhood field would say are best practices,” he says.
Those plans, according to Biden’s campaign website, include funding high-quality universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and improving pay and benefits for early childhood educators. Alongside the promises for elder care, the proposal would cost $775 billion over 10 years and would be paid for by rolling back tax breaks on the wealthy.
The caveat, Wuori says, is that Biden’s success in turning his proposal into policy may lie in the outcome of the two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January. Those races will determine which political party has control in Congress, and although Biden may “find common ground” with Republican leadership, as he has promised to do, Wuori doesn’t think a Republican-led Senate would be too keen on rolling back tax breaks to fund universal preschool.
Beyond providing free preschool for families, in the short-term, Biden has indicated he has a “tremendous amount of enthusiasm around immediate support for COVID-19 relief,” something that the child care sector desperately needs, says Siddiqi, the CEO at Hunt. Experts expect Biden to push a stimulus bill that will provide additional funding for the child care industry, which has not seen an infusion of federal funds since the spring. The Trump administration has waffled on the prospect of additional stimulus.
“The longer we go without additional congressional intervention, the more the child care industry is going to see permanent closures,” Wuori adds, noting that many providers have managed to stay solvent thus far due to money they received from the CARES Act passed in the spring.
Though both Wuori and Siddiqi think Biden will be a strong advocate for early childhood education and its strained workforce, they say the Trump administration has done some good things for the field, too—notably, increasing funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides funding to help families afford child care and to improve the quality of that child care. Still, they did not see child care as an “overriding priority for the Trump administration,” Wuori says.
A ‘Sin’ Tax in Colorado
Coloradans last week approved Proposition EE, a tax on nicotine whose revenue will eventually be directed to fund universal preschool in the state.
The tax on tobacco and vape products goes into effect on Jan. 1 and will initially provide funding for K-12 education, including public schools in rural Colorado that have been hard-hit by budget cuts from COVID-19. Beginning in 2023, the tax revenue will be redirected to fund universal, free preschool for all 4-year-olds in Colorado, or about 67,000 children statewide.
The first few years will help to alleviate funding loss in high-need K-12 schools, says Melissa Mares, early childhood policy fellow at Colorado Children’s Campaign. But it will also allow those involved in executing the universal preschool program, which includes the Children’s Campaign, to work out the details.
“This is a big change to our current state preschool program,” Mares says, referring to a targeted program that serves 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who qualify by having risk factors such as coming from a family with a history of abuse, being raised by a teenage parent, coming from a low-income household or learning English as a second language. Of the students who are eligible for that program, only 40 percent actually get to access it, because of insufficient funding. “That’s one reason we are so thrilled about Proposition EE’s passage.”
Put another way, only one in four 4-year-olds in Colorado have had access to the current state-funded preschool program. Under Proposition EE, every 4-year-old could conceivably access it.
“Our end goal is universal enrollment—or close to it—but we know that may take time,” Mares says. “We want to make sure we are starting off as responsive as we can be to those telling us they are interested in this.”
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)’s 2019 State of Preschool report, only a handful of states serve more than 70 percent of 4-year-olds through state-funded preschool. Those states are Vermont, Oklahoma, Florida and Wisconsin, along with Washington, D.C.
The nicotine tax will fund at least 10 hours of preschool per week for children who are a year out from starting kindergarten. Once every child is funded for their 10 hours, remaining revenue will go to cover additional hours of preschool for children from low-income families or who have pre-existenting risk factors for starting kindergarten behind.
As a former kindergarten teacher, Mares says she has seen first-hand why it’s so important to provide families with universal access to preschool. As it stands currently, a family’s financial means and background play an enormous role in determining whether their child will attend high-quality preschool. Oftentimes, that means children of color and children from low-income families lack access—and find themselves at a disadvantage before the age of 5.
Detailing the importance of early learning, Mares describes it like this: “It’s about letters and numbers and whether you can write your name. But it’s also about friendship skills, social skills, and whether you can recognize your feelings, knowing you may have to wait your turn to speak or how to put your jacket on without adult assistance.”
She adds: “This is an incredible opportunity for the kids in our state to start off on the right foot. It offers them the best chance of success they can have.”
A Model for Publicly-Funded Preschool in Portland
On the ballot in Multnomah County, Ore., which includes the city of Portland, was a Preschool For All initiative that won handily and will be paid for by a tax on high-income earners.
The initiative will provide 3- and 4-year-olds in Multnomah County with access to a high-quality preschool of their choice, tuition-free, says Muranovic, chief petitioner from the Universal Preschool NOW coalition and co-chair of the Preschool for All campaign, along with Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. (Universal Preschool NOW and Preschool for All began as two different coalitions but ultimately merged and united behind the ballot initiative that 64 percent of voters supported on Nov. 3).
Muranovic called the initiative “one of the biggest anti-poverty measures created in generations” and said it will lift up individuals and families for “years and generations to come.”
The Multnomah initiative will allow families flexibility on details like full-day versus half-day preschool and programs that run year-round versus during the school-year. It will also ban suspensions and expulsion for preschool-aged children—a decision that came out of conversation with families of color in the community, as well as from talking directly with teachers and children.
“We built the best and most equitable preschool program in the country by centering the voices of our community members most impacted by the lack of quality preschool,” says Vega Pederson. “Founded on principles of inclusivity, justice and equity, Preschool for All could not only transform early childhood education locally, but all across the United States.”
The initiative, which some have suggested could be a national model, is projected to fund preschool for all families by 2030, but will work up to that in the coming years by prioritizing families with least access first (this includes children living in poverty, who have disabilities and who are learning English as a second language).
Key to the Multnomah County initiative is its emphasis on creating a living wage for early childhood educators, whose incomes on average align more closely with minimum wage workers than they do K-12 teachers. Preschool teachers, under the new initiative, will be paid on par with kindergarten teachers, and assistant teachers will be paid a minimum of $18 per hour.