Good but Not Good Enough: Moving Public Will on Early Childhood Education

11/06/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Over the last 20 years or so neuroscientific research has demonstrated the importance of the early years of life to human development. More recently, University of Chicago economist James Heckman has persuasively argued that intervention in the lives of our youngest children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is one of the wisest investments we can make to ensure America's future prosperity.

The Obama White House has proposed that high-quality pre-school be extended to every child in America and has been convening meetings around the country with a broad group of stakeholders dedicated to his early learning agenda. This week, Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, will come to one such forum in Los Angeles called "Children:LA's Greatest Investment" and hosted by a range of partners: LA n Sync, Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), First 5 Los Angeles, LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment, The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Scholastic Inc., and The California Community Foundation. Anticipating the renewed focus on early childhood education (ECE), the Los Angeles County of Education, First 5 Los Angeles, and ECE Works commissioned a survey of 500 Los Angeles county likely voters to assess local public opinion in the late spring of 2014. In an atmosphere of increased focus on early childhood education, my colleague Jonathan Collins and I surveyed L.A. County voters on their attitudes about the best way forward for early childhood education. The findings have notable implications for anyone interested in ECE policy.

Consistent with most national and local surveys, our Los Angeles sample ranked children's issues right behind "increasing jobs and economic growth" as the "most important" national priority. This means they ranked it higher than improving roads and infrastructure, improving access to healthcare, reducing taxes on families, and securing our borders. Yet 75 percent of Los Angeles likely voters said "half or fewer children start kindergarten with the skills they need" and almost 7 out of 10 say we should do more to "ensure that all children are ready for kindergarten." These attitudes, however, are not equally distributed across the population. On average, for example, Democrats, the more highly educated, and Blacks were more likely to believe that while children's issues are important, most children aren't ready for kindergarten and that we should be doing more to ensure their success.

The upshot of these findings is that it appears Angelenos are ready to embrace change when it comes to early childhood education. To be sure, this is welcomed news. What kind of change people will accept, of course, is a wholly different matter.

To gain some insight into what types of reforms people will support, we presented respondents with two basic models:

The "safety" model encompasses a number of changes to the administration of schools and child care facilities. Its components include: raising the health and safety of child care settings; requiring providers to undergo extensive background checks; requiring annual safety inspection; and improving program quality.

The "developmental" model has a more programmatic focus. Its components include: shaping programs for infants and toddlers that give them a strong start on "developing school ready knowledge and social skills more available." It would bring those skills home through voluntary home visiting and parent education programs to support early learning, health and development; make early education and care more affordable; and devote more resources to help states and local communities build better preschool services.

Support for the safety model was, on average, 22 percent higher than support for the developmental model. For instance, 65 percent of likely voters said the safety model was "very important" but just 43 percent said the developmental model was "very important". When it comes to the individual components of the safety model, the highest support was 70 percent for "background checks" and the lowest support was for "program quality". For the safety model, support was pretty stable for three of the four components at about 50 percent. Interestingly, people have extremely unfavorable views of home visitation -- only 27 percent said it was "very important" to them. Given American's penchant for individual liberties and freedom, it is no surprise that they would consider government workers visiting their homes to "evaluate" their parenting skills to be intrusive.

The largest individual differences are between self-described Democrats and everyone else; and this is true for both models. In other words, Democrats are more likely to endorse both plans by wide margins. What is more compelling, however, is that the largest partisan differences are evident for the developmental model. Even when it comes to the least popular intervention--home visits -- Democrats support it at four times the rate of Republicans. Moreover, while racial and ethnic differences are important, Blacks and Latinos are generally more supportive of both agendas -- the partisan differences are significantly greater than the racial and ethnic differences when it comes to the developmental model. Put differently, partisan and racial ethnic differences are similar in size when it comes to the safety plan; however, when it comes to the developmental model the partisan difference is about 1 ½ times greater than the racial and ethnic difference.

What this all means for advocates of a developmental reform agenda in Los Angeles is that there is a strong base from which to work--Democrats, Blacks and Latinos are on board. The heavier lifting will come when attention is turned to whites and Asians and Republicans and Independents. Here the climb is steeper.

There is an old adage in the strategic communications game by Richard Schenk. To paraphrase: "Failure can occur, even when conditions for change appear otherwise ripe, in the absence of a resonant master narrative." In other words, before a solid majority of Angelenos will get on board, there will need to be a compelling story about why developmental ECE interventions are crucial to the development of the region. That is the key question for Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration.