Four-year olds. Three-year olds. Children even younger, including those still in the womb. Across the country, policymakers are betting that investments in preschool and other programs for young children from low-income families will pay off with their future academic success and well-being.
But do the programs work?
Some say there’s no question, that science has proved the answer is yes. Others are more cautious, observing that early educational advances can dissipate if children are not provided continuing support all the way through their teenage years and even into early adulthood.
The search is on for more evidence that the very substantial investments governments are making in early childhood support are in fact translating into sustainable gains—and to better define exactly what kinds of support are needed at various stages in a child’s life. Philanthropies, academic researchers and local governments themselves are all in the hunt.
Certainly, governments are spending money on these efforts. The best, or at least the largest, example is found in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has beat the drums for investing hundreds of millions of dollars in free pre-K programs for 4-year-olds, and more recently offers more limited programs in public schools for three-year-olds (which his administration wants to eventually expand to all children that age).
These pre-kindergarten educational readiness programs doubtless make a difference in many kids’ lives. But children from low-income families often also need other kinds of help—including training their parents to nurture their learning, intervening to assess their health issues, and more. These kinds of services are part of an interesting initiative in King County, Washington, whose county seat is Seattle and is home to 2.2 million residents, two-thirds of whom live in the city’s suburbs. Officials there persuaded the public to approve a tax hike that generates $65 million a year to help low-income children from the time they are still in the womb right through early adulthood.
King County has also insisted, through use of performance-based contracting, that community groups providing children’s services make careful evaluation of their results.
Early Childhood Programs
For more than 50 years, It has been an article of faith among many education experts that early childhood programs make a difference in a child’s prospects for success in life.
After all, the federal Head Start program was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, unveiled in 1964 to help meet the emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs of preschool-aged children from low-income families. It has served well over 30 million children since its inception.
As researchers have looked for results from the many billions of dollars spent on Head Start, they have found positive results, but also evidence of “fading” of gains as children get older. More evaluation is under way as a result of new performance standards approved in 2016 by the Administration for Children and Families. They seek to “encourage the use of data to track progress and reach goals in all program areas.”
Because Head Start and Early Head Start do not reach millions of families living in or at the edges of poverty, local governments like New York City’s and King County’s have stepped in.
King County offers an interesting case study of a large local government’s decision-making and program design processes in the pursuit of better outcomes for its less fortunate citizens.
Carrie S. Cihak, chief of policy for the county, said that since county executive Dow Constantine was elected in 2009, he has emphasized helping people in need.
“Many see Seattle as a place of economic prosperity,” she said in a recent interview, “and it is true that when you look at longevity, and our very highly educated population, we seem to be doing very well.
“But by race and by place, you see very stark disparities—for example, a ten-year difference in life expectancy by ZIP code. Some communities are really struggling. The recession had the greatest impact on those least able to recover.”
The poverty rate in the county, according to the latest estimates, stands at just over 9 percent.
Cihak said the number of people living on incomes below 200 percent of the poverty threshold has been growing in suburban areas of the county. Federal programs are not adequately addressing the needs of these communities, she added.
King County’s New Approach
In 2014, Constantine undertook a thorough reevaluation of the county’s approach to serving its low-income populations. Officials came to realize that the county’s approach to contracting for social services ran counter to its strategic goals “of enhancing equity, health and wellbeing outcomes among residents and [of using] data and evidence to drive positive outcomes for county residents,” as one recent study put it. At the time, the study by Results for America found that “there were many gaps in understanding which services worked best for which resident population.”
And there wasn’t enough money in the system to pursue the goal of social equity on which Constantine had run. So in 2015, voters in the county were asked to approve a property tax levy to fund the brand new Best Starts for Kids initiative. It won backing from the influential Seattle Foundation, which had never before taken a position on a ballot initiative, from other community organizations and from The Seattle Times editorial board. The measure, designed to raise $65 million a year, passed in November 2015 with 56 percent of the vote.
The initiative was intended to provide complementary support to child-care, pre-K, and school environments, not to establish new pre-schools. The City of Seattle and others in the region have been expanding pre-K facilities, but are not yet providing universal pre-school, Cihak said.
It has taken time to figure out how best to spend the money, and to enlist and train dozens of community organizations to manage the spending and measure its results. In 2017, the program started paying for “home-based services,” such as working with parents of toddlers on helping their children learn through play at home. They also funded $1.3 million in early intervention services for children with developmental delays and spent $6 million on public health services for pregnant women and young children.
One decision the county made was to deploy the new resources to support programs extending throughout the childhood, and into early adulthood, for target populations. So the Best Starts for Kids program devotes only half of its funding to early childhood programs.
Another 35 percent is spent on programs to help people from age 5 through age 24. Ten percent of the funds are devoted to “communities of opportunity,” Cihak said, in the hope that focusing spending on particular locations will help their residents. And finally, 5 percent of the money is set aside for evaluating results.
A wide range of needs are targeted—from preventing homelessness to coaching parents. Here is a sampling of more programs from the initiative’s first full year, taken from its 2017 annual report:
- $1.7 million for three new school-based health centers;
- $1.8 million to 18 community partners working to create environments that foster play and access to healthy food;
- $934,000 to implement strategies in schools to help children with trauma;
- $2.1 million on efforts to eliminate the “school to prison pipeline” ;
- $4.1 million to help prevent youth and family homelessness;
- $2.7 million for the county’s “Communities of Opportunity” program, which helps local organizations do projects in their neighborhoods.
These numbers don’t include all of 2017 spending. Outlays have climbed toward the full $65 million-a-year mark as more programs have come on line in the past year.
Two King County departments are sharing the work of design and management of the initiative—the Department of Public Health and the Department of Community and Human Services. An important task is developing performance-based contracting vehicles that can work with the small community organizations they are recruiting to deliver many of the services needed in the low-income neighborhoods they serve.
A National Movement
New York Mayor de Blasio has paved the way for ambitious programs to help pre-schoolers. His success in promoting them was “the most salient achievement of his mayoralty” as he ran for reelection last year, as The New York Times put it.
“For so long there’s been this inequity of, if you could afford to send your children to pre-K they got a leg up,” Queens borough president, Melinda Katz told The Times. “By the time they got into kindergarten, they were reading and writing, they could do basic math. That was such a crux of the inequity of the system.”The creation of universal prekindergarten, she said, “defines him, and it’s going to have historical significance for our future generations.”
Other politicians have rallied to the cause. In Maryland, for example, Nancy Navarro, incoming chair of the Montgomery County Council, is focusing on those left behind in the large and generally prosperous county. She told the annual gathering of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) last month that giving in-need children better opportunities in life is “surely a moral and civil rights imperative of our times.”
But she also said that finding more resources to help struggling populations “needs to be reframed as an economic imperative, even a national security issue.” Tying the interventions directly to her county’s economy, she said, “If not, the kids go to gangs, and we see declines in property values.”
Cihak volunteered that it was both essential and difficult to build “a capable government infrastructure” to support the new outcomes-based contracting approach. “Part of the equation for success,” she said, “is having the right people, the right capacity, to manage contracts, to provide technical support, to help build indicators that speak to the outcomes we seek.” The two departments have been adding contracting experts to their staffs.
Cihak added that the county is using “results based accountability” methodology in the Best Starts for Kids program. That’s a process that “begins by identifying the shared results that are desired and then works backward, step by step, to the actions needed to achieve a desired result,” said Results for America’s study.
Similarly, in Utah, Democrat Ben McAdams, who was just elected to Congress, has argued that economic benefits have flowed from an early childhood program he championed while serving as mayor of Salt Lake County.
“By investing in early childhood development, county taxpayers got a substantial return on investment by avoiding future costs from student delinquency, pediatric health, drugs, gangs and incarceration,” said his campaign website. “High-quality preschool closes the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their financially stable peers. This leads to higher high school and college graduation rates.”
Navarro and de Blasio operate in strongly liberal political environments. The strong showing of Democrats in last month’s elections could result in more state experimentation with early childhood programs. As a report from the Brookings Institution observed,
“In the seven states that flipped to Democratic governors, we may see renewed efforts to pursue progressive education agendas, such as increasing public funds for public K-12 education. For example, during his campaign, Tony Evers, a Democrat who defeated incumbent Scott Walker for the governorship in Wisconsin, proposed increasing state spending on K-12 education by 10 percent. Gretchen Whitmer, the newly elected Democratic governor of Michigan, touted universal state-funded preschool during her campaign.”
At the same time, the drive to quantify results continues. “Let’s do evaluation,” Navarro told the NAPA conference. “Let’s make sure it’s sustainable, and scalable, on the basis of evidence we gather.”
Such efforts are in progress in Tallahassee, Florida, where university researchers are studying a preschool program, and in Chicago and Tempe, Arizona, where experiments with so-called “pay for success” programs, also known as social impact bonds, are underway.
In a few cases, deep-pocketed private investors are financing such efforts. That was the case a while back when the huge Wall Street firm of Goldman Sachs pocketed a small bit of extra profit because some kids in Utah lived up to relatively lofty expectations.
As worthy as such experiments might be, they are small change in a fast-moving political environment that is seeing many millions of dollars directed toward improving prospects for children from poor families.