Showing Policymakers the Importance of Early Childhood
By Larry Schweinhart, President, HighScope Educational Research Foundation
On Monday morning, March 21, 2011, over 40 legislators, business leaders, and other early childhood advocates gathered at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, MI, to learn about early childhood education in the state. Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley spoke of Governor Rick Snyder's support for early childhood education; Joan Lessen-Firestone addressed the topic of early brain development; I talked about the long-term effects of high-quality early childhood programs; and Beth Marshall showed the HighScope Demonstration Preschool in action, focusing on teaching children conflict resolution strategies as a form of crime prevention. Afterwards, participants had lunch and participated in a discussion led by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville. By all reports, this combination of activities had a powerful effect on all participants.
This briefing was the culmination of a collaborative process among HighScope, Voices for Michigan’s Children, the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, the Center for Michigan, the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, and the Birth to Five Policy Alliance. The planning meetings were a learning process in themselves. [Several of these organizations have posted accounts of the legislative briefing on their websites; see Voices for Michigan's Children,Michigan Sandbox Party, and Great Start for Kids.] I spoke of the effects of HighScope’s Perry Preschool program in childhood and adulthood and of the enormous economic return on investment in the program — $16 for every dollar invested, which is a better return than the long-term return on the stock market before the recession.
I pointed out that we have a basic choice between providing every child in poverty with such a program or suffering the expensive consequences of our neglect. Because we choose to underfund the federal Head Start program and the state’s Great Start Readiness Program, we are still choosing to neglect too many children in this way. It’s one of the reasons the state budget comes up short. As we often say about the HighScope's Perry Preschool Study findings: To get what we got, you’ve got to do what we did that worked. It’s not enough to simply fund and run early childhood programs; to be effective, these programs must have certain characteristics: qualified teachers, a validated curriculum, engagement of parents, and regular assessment of program implementation and children’s development. If these characteristics are not taken seriously, there is no reason to expect long-term effects and return on investment.
Alongside the federal Head Start program, Michigan makes several major investments in early childhood education. Our state designed the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) as an investment in young children, as did the federal government with Head Start. We can and need to improve both Head Start and GSRP. The necessary policy prerequisite for these efforts is continued and increased funding. Without such stability, we are turning our backs on one of our most promising policy tools for the counter-attack on poverty. The other major investment is Michigan’s share of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant. Most of this funding is to expand child care access, but 4 percent of it is dedicated to improving child care quality. However, years ago, we permitted child care funding to go to relatives and in-home aides who were neither licensed nor registered to provide child care. While some folks might be “good with kids,” others are not and we have no way of knowing. Today, Michigan is one of a handful of states in which the majority of child care funding goes to these unregulated providers. The State Legislature recently required these providers to receive a few hours of training; it is a beginning.
Next, Joan Lessen-Firestone as usual gave an excellent talk on how children's brains develop and what we need to nurture brain growth. She described the parts of the brain and the human experiences that are associated with each part. Dr. Lessen-Firestone also explained how experience affects neuronal architecture and how synaptic activity grows steadily from birth to age 7, after which it prunes back. She showed pictures of typically developing brains as they compare to those of at-risk children, with much greater activity in the former. As Dr. Lessen-Firestone explained, constant environmental stress affects brain cortisol levels, and family income level is linked to young children’s cognitive performance, vocabulary, and behavior. According to Dr. Lessen-Firestone, the high-quality Educare early childhood program improves vocabulary in young children, and she argued that we need to serve at-risk children first — the earlier the better. Brain growth is greatest in early childhood, when public spending on high-quality programs is lowest. Dr. Lessen-Firestone closed by saying that it’s easier to build the brains of young children than repair the brains of adults.
After the morning presentations, we moved to HighScope’s historic Hutchinson House for lunch. Following lunch, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville led a discussion on early childhood education with state legislators and business leaders. Each legislator took the opportunity to comment on the morning’s presentations and how the information might influence the State Legislature. Some wanted to set early childhood aside from budget cuts as an area of bipartisan agreement, keeping it protected from the partisan disagreements that will occur. Reps. Rudy Hobbs and Maureen Stapleton both identified themselves as former first grade teachers. Sen. Richardville said, “You’ve got bipartisan support here we haven’t seen in years. It shows how important early childhood education is.“
In a sense, Governor Snyder’s state government budget proposal, issued a few weeks earlier, set the tone for the event. This proposed budget presents support for the Great Start Readiness Program and the Great Start Collaborative, even as it makes substantial cuts in many other areas of state funding. Such actions speak louder than words and suggest that state Republicans and Democrats can join together in bipartisan support for high-quality early childhood education. One area of early childhood cuts in the Governor’s budget is the hourly reimbursement for relative and in-home aide providers, which will likely further reduce the number of unregulated child care settings receiving public funding. Taken together, these budget moves are consistent with support for early childhood education as an economic investment in programs of quality for which economic return is expected. That was a basic message of the legislative briefing. While Sen. Richardville stopped short of taking early childhood education completely off the budget-cutting table, it has the security of bipartisan support for the present. In this economic climate, that is about as good as it gets.