Opinion

Washington Can’t Seem to Agree on Anything — Except Kids

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum still see early childhood education as critically important

Sen. Tim Kaine speaks during a National Head Start Association rally in 2015. Support for the program is still going strong, even as partisan rancor overtakes other policy issues, the authors write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Cal file photo)

OPINION — The intensity of this fall’s midterm election campaigns could make it easy to forget that there is one priority both political parties have consistently come together to support: early childhood education.

Despite the growing partisan divide, which seems to be worsening by the day and has left Washington unable to reach consensus on even routine items, lawmakers from across the political spectrum in Congress and the 50 states still view advancing early childhood education as a critical objective.

Voter support for this objective manifested itself on Election Day; for example, the vast majority of governors-elect have previously expressed support for early learning and care initiatives in their respective states.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Members on both sides of the aisle have a long history of supporting our youngest learners, and that support is only growing stronger. Over the past several years, whether power in Congress has been held by Republicans, Democrats, or split between the two, funding for important early learning opportunities has been a top priority.

This year, one need only look at the fiscal year 2019 federal appropriations legislation to see how lawmakers came together to build on years of progress and include significant commitments to crucial early childhood education programs, such as Child Care Development Block Grants and the newly launched Preschool Development Grants.

The fiscal 2019 bill, which passed the House and Senate in overwhelming bipartisan fashion and was signed into law by the president in September, provides increases in funding for critical early learning programs, including Early Head Start, which serves infants and toddlers, and Head Start, which serves 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers. The funding will enable these programs to continue partnering with parents to reach nearly one million at-risk children with high-quality care and education, as well as important health, nutrition, and family support.

Like other early learning and care programs that help children from birth through age five build a foundation for lifelong success, Head Start delivers proven, lasting results; research on the long-term impacts of Head Start found the program reduces behavioral and health problems, while another study concluded children enrolled in Early Head Start outperformed their peers in cognitive, language, and socio-emotional development. A 2016 analysis of data collected over three decades found that Head Start students are more likely to graduate high school, pursue higher education, and complete higher education than their own siblings who did not participate in Head Start. The study also found that Head Start participation increased positive parenting practices, such as reading aloud to children.

Head Start also provides support to families across the country, and its services are especially vital in underserved communities. A Center for American Progress report found that Head Start operates programs in nearly 90 percent of America’s 1,700+ rural counties. The study also found that within a 10-state sample, Head Start accounts for one out of every three child care centers in rural America.

Across the country, Head Start and Early Head Start programs are increasingly using their unique and influential position as a community-embedded provider of comprehensive services to treat children and families suffering from substance-use disorders. With targeted funding, Head Start can help reduce the ripple effects of addiction by supporting the healthy development of drug-exposed children, helping these children catch up to their peers while providing interventions for parents and families.

It’s not surprising that politicians on both sides of the aisle strongly support early childhood education programs, given that these investments are exceedingly popular among voters of all political stripes. A 2017 First Five Years Fund poll found 74 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of independents, and 95 percent of Democrats support greater funding for quality early childhood education programs like Head Start.

Recent research also suggests that U.S. taxpayers are getting a significant return on their investment in early childhood education programs. When researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (Patrick Kline and Christopher Walters) analyzed data from the Head Start Impact Study in 2016, they found that Head Start returns $2 for every $1 invested. A National Bureau of Economic Research study by Rucker C. Johnson and Kirabo C. Jackson, revised this year, also found that Head Start has even larger societal benefits when children go on to attend public schools that have higher funding levels.

As the rancor of election season fades, let’s renew our nation’s bipartisan commitment to programs that benefit our nation’s youngest learners, like Head Start. Support for early childhood education funding has been growing in recent years, and we must sustain this momentum regardless of which party is in power. Our nation’s future depends on it.

Yasmina Vinci is the executive director of the National Head Start Association; Sarah Rittling is the executive director of the First Five Years Fund.

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