Business, military signal strong support for public preschool, but Republican lawmakers unswayed

June 17, 2013

Early childhood education advocates are working to make it clear that not everyone supporting President Barack Obama’s proposal to vastly expand federal funding for preschool and infant and toddler care is a tax-and-spend liberal.

“This has become a bipartisan issue in the real world,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently in a sound bite that has become standard language in his stump speech for the president’s proposal to invest $75 billion over the next decade for states wishing to create or expand public preschool for 4-year-olds and early care for infants and toddlers.

Duncan listed military generals, police officers, faith organizations and businesses as groups supporting investments in early education. He’s not exaggerating. Many of these typically conservative organizations have come forward in support of increased public funding for early education. Even several Republican governors from states like Georgia, Indiana and Oklahoma have championed public preschool in their own states.

Rep. John Campbell, R-Irvine, opposes expanding federal spending on public preschool. Credit: Office of Rep. John Campbell

Yet, not one of the people the secretary and preschool advocates most need to convince – Republican senators and House representatives – has publicly stepped forward to support the plan. That support will be crucial as Obama tries to push his plan, which calls for a hike in the federal tobacco tax, through Congress.

“Why, with all the pressure on K-12, would you want to fund another year of taxpayer funded education?” asked Rep. John Campbell, R–Irvine. “To me, that’s fiscal insanity.”

Of the 15 California Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, 11 have been publicly silent on the issue. Only four – Ken Calvert, R-Corona; Dana Rohrabacher, R-Newport Beach; Doug LaMalfa, R-Redding; and Campbell ­– responded to requests for comment. All four were strongly opposed to increasing federal spending to support public preschool.

“I oppose funding an expansion of federal programs by raising taxes,” Calvert said through a spokesperson. “While there’s no doubt preschool and early childhood education are important to the development of American children, I believe states and local governments should continue to be primarily responsible for these efforts.”

Campbell said that in addition to his unwillingness to authorize additional federal spending, he was unconvinced of the benefits of public preschool. He said he put more stock in a family’s commitment to education.

“I went to preschool and my kids went to preschool,” he said. “I have a hard time believing that that is what made my kids or me successful in life.”

Campbell said he had not yet had a chance to look closely at all of the studies touted by the Department of Education about the long-term benefits of preschool. A number of studies of urban and statewide public preschool programs have shown clear benefits for participants compared to their peers who were not enrolled, including higher high school graduation rates and lower rates of criminal activity. These studies form the backbone of the president’s argument that an investment in preschool will bring a long-term societal benefit.

Business, military support

Some of those studies have helped convince two other traditionally conservative groups, business leaders and retired military officers, to back Obama’s plan. Advocates are hoping the strong support from these groups can help sway Congressional votes.

Click to enlarge this chart demonstrating the results of the Hart and Risley vocabulary study. Source: Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. Brookes Publishing, 1995

Two studies — the Hart and Risley vocabulary study and the Heckman curve — have been particularly convincing to the business leaders of Los Angeles County, said David Rattray, the senior vice president of the education and workforce division for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. It’s Rattray’s job to explain the benefits of supporting public funding for early education to the leaders of the more than 1,600 businesses represented by the L.A. chamber, including large corporations such as AT&T and the Southern California arm of Kaiser Permanente.

University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley released a study in 1995 showing that children in professional families heard twice as many words per hour as working class families and three times as many words per hour as children in welfare families. These proportions correlated almost exactly to the number of words children from these groups could speak at age 3, showing that learning gaps exist even before children enter kindergarten.

That data, coupled with findings from Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, who found that that a $1 investment in early education resulted in a $7 return, resonates with business leaders concerned about a skilled future workforce, Rattray said. Heckman’s findings showed that the earlier money is invested in a child’s education, the higher the rate of return to society in everything from increased individual earnings to savings in the criminal justice system. The gains were most dramatic for the children who started out behind, Heckman found.

“The business community gets that kind of thing,” Rattray said. “If you fall behind, it’s expensive to recover and that affects the person coming to us” as an employee.

Click to enlarge this chart illustrating the findings of Nobel Laureate James Heckman regarding the return on investment for early childhood programs. Source: The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children, James Heckman

At least one business organization in 49 out of 50 states has taken at least one concrete action to support early childhood education in the last year, according to a recent survey by the national bipartisan advocacy group America’s Promise Alliance. Businesses reported actions from issuing opinion pieces in local newspapers in support of early education, to joining a coalition, such as the Preschool Business Advisory Council in California, to advocating for early education funding with state lawmakers.

The responses to the survey made it clear that early childhood education has become a mainstream issue among business people, said Sara Watson, the Alliance’s executive vice president. “There is a foothold in the business community for building support for early learning,” she said.

More than 300 business leaders signed an open letter to President Obama in support of investing public funding in early childhood education in late May. Obama’s proposal was not specifically mentioned, but the suggested policies the letter outlined closely mirror the president’s.

“We see other countries investing in their young children both for the long term benefits of a stronger workforce and the current benefits that come from enhancing the productivity of parents. To compete, we have to do the same,” reads the letter, with signatories such Macy’s and Procter & Gamble.

National interest

Retired military generals and admirals have also taken on the cause through a group called Mission: Readiness. The group advocates for access to high-quality early childhood education among other goals, including improving nutrition and fitness at public schools. Both efforts are focused on changing a U.S. Department of Defense statistic that says only 25 percent of today’s youth are eligible for military service due to obesity, a criminal record or the inability to pass the entrance exam, among other factors.

Since January, various members of the group have come out in support of early childhood education in states from Mississippi to Pennsylvania. And the group issued a report June 11 arguing that there is a direct line between high-quality early education and national security.

“I am worried about the cost of government,” said retired Rear Adm. Ronne Froman of San Diego. But, she said, “If we want our kids to succeed we’re going to have to pay the price.”

Republican governors in states like Oklahoma, Georgia and Virginia have also made early childhood programs a key element of their platforms, though none have yet thrown public support behind the president’s plan.

Catriona Macdonald, manager of the Grow America Stronger campaign to create political will for expanding public funding for early childhood education initiatives, said the next step in making the president’s plan a reality will come when legislation is introduced on the floors of the House and the Senate. Rep. George Miller, D–Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D–Iowa, are expected to introduce legislation in their respective chambers in mid-summer.

“Harkin and Miller are still talking to Republicans and thinking about what legislative strategy will move things forward fastest,” Macdonald said. She acknowledged that “fast” isn’t a word associated with Congress much these days, but said this was a big enough issue with enough bipartisan public support that it might make it through.

Meanwhile, Macdonald said there are “conversations happening” in Washington, D.C., and that with the right tweaks and compromises to the current proposal, it might be possible to gain real Republican support.

“Getting the first person to publicly endorse is a challenge,” Macdonald said. “After that it makes it safe for other folks to do so.”

Helen Blank of the National Women’s Law Center, which has helped organize a national letter-writing campaign in support of the president’s plan, said she didn’t think the benefit of preschool was a controversial issue for most people.

“I just think that there’s reason for hope,” Blank said. “This issue stands out as one that you could possibly find agreement on.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her and follow her @lrmongeau.

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