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Testimony on the State of State Early Childhood Policies

Author: Helene Stebbins
Publication Date: June 2009

On March 17th, 2009, Helene Stebbins testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor about the importance of early childhood development.

Good morning Chairman Miller and members of the Committee. Thank you for the invitation to testify today. I am the project coordinator of Improving the Odds for Young Children, a project of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. I also work with the Birth to Five Policy Alliance, a pooled fund from seven private investors to improve state policies for vulnerable children in the earliest years.

I am here today to talk to you about the state of state early childhood policies, and to urge you to think comprehensively about the range of policy options that support early learning. Increasingly, policymakers understand the research showing that the foundation for learning and healthy development is established between birth and age five. But too often the policy response to this knowledge is narrow, focusing on only one program or funding stream. My work seeks to raise the level of the debate by offering a menu of policy options, organized by a framework showing young children need three things in order to become well educated, self-sufficient adults. They need:

  1. regular visits to the doctor even when they are healthy;
  2. stimulating early learning opportunities; and
  3. stable, nurturing families who have enough resources and parenting skill to meet their basic needs.

Now, think about these three dimensions as three legs of a stool. Strong public policies in each of these areas are essential to balance the stool and provide a stable foundation for healthy development and learning. If policies in any one dimension are weak, or missing, the stool easily wobbles, creating a weak foundation for learning.

In your briefing materials you will find a copy of your state’s early childhood profile from the Improving the Odds for Young Children project. We update these monthly, and the most recent profile can be downloaded from our website (http://www.nccp.org/profiles/early_childhood.html). Each page of the profile represents one leg of the stool with policy choices that promote access as well as quality. The policy choices are not a definitive list of policy options, but rather a starting point once policymakers understand the research and ask the question, “What can I do?”

If we look at the policy profiles collectively, we see a lot of wobbly stools for young children. Let me give you a few examples.

  • First, health. Forty-four states provide access to public health insurance for young children in low-income families. However, many children who are eligible for Medicaid are not receiving the dental and health screenings that are recommended by doctors, and that can prevent or reduce costly problems in the future. In 45 states, one-third of eligible children ages 3-5 never receive an annual check-up.
  • Second, early learning. While access to state-funded prekindergarten is growing, access to quality early care and education, from birth to school entry, is still inadequate. State child care licensing requirements are not promoting the kind of nurturing, high-quality care that promotes school readiness. Only eight states meet recommended child care licensing standards for toddlers, and only 15 meet them for 4-year-old children. As the graph on Page 3 of the profile shows, many young children eligible for enrollment in the major early childhood programs cannot access them, and access for infants and toddlers is especially limited. For example, a program like Early Head Start, with a rigorous evaluation showing it is effective, serves less than three percent of eligible children.
  • Third, parents. State efforts to promote family economic security are uneven. About half of the states address the inadequacy of the minimum wage, and half exempt families in poverty from state income taxes. Most low-income working parents are not eligible for public health insurance, and only six states provide paid family leave so mothers can stay home with their newborn and establish a strong, nurturing relationship. If we expect parents to be their children’s first and best teachers, then we have to provide the economic and parenting supports that allow them to do so.

There are many choices that can help balance the three-legged stool of early childhood policy. My work focuses on state policy choices, but federal resource allocations and regulations shape many of these choices. My work shows the tremendous variation in the policy choices that states make, but federal policies can help level the playing field so children have access to quality supports and services regardless of where they are born.

We have a window of opportunity for federal leadership to stabilize and strengthen the three-legged stool with the reauthorization of SCHIP, the additional funding for early childhood programs in the Recovery Act, and the potential for early learning challenge grants. As you consider the federal role, please remember that learning begins at birth, that one year of pre-kindergarten is not enough, and that vulnerable children have the most to gain from public policies that support their early development.

Let me close by saying it is time to stop debating the importance of the early childhood years.

  • Neuroscience research shows the brain develops at an unprecedented pace during the first year of life.
  • Social science research shows children who experience high-quality, nurturing environments, starting at birth, are better prepared to succeed when they enter school.
  • Economic analyses show positive returns on investments from early intervention programs, especially those that target the most vulnerable children.

The research is solid. Let us stop debating this and start debating the policy response.

Thank you.

Resources

Improving the Odds for Young Children provides state-specific, regional, and national profiles that integrate data about an array of policies that affect early childhood development. Policy categories include: health and nutrition, early care and learning, and parenting and economic supports. View state profiles on-line, or download the four-page PDF profile for each state.

The User Guide to the State Early Childhood Profiles provides descriptions of the policies in the state profiles, and the research base for their effectiveness. http://www.nccp.org/profiles/pdf/EC_user_guide.pdf

The Research Case for Improving State Early Childhood Policy is a PowerPoint presentation that presents the research behind why (1) income matters, (2) early experiences matter, and (3) multiple risks matter. http://www.nccp.org/downloads/ResearchCaseSept08.pdf

The Demographics Wizard can create custom tables of national- and state-level statistics about low-income or poor children under the age of six. Choose areas of interest, such as parental education, parental employment, marital status, and race/ethnicity – among many other variables. Once the table is created, select the option to view data for children under age six.

The Birth to Five Policy Alliance is a pooled fund that works to improve policies and increase funding for vulnerable children, from birth to age five.