Early childhood education advocates are celebrating the Legislature’s $138 million increase in the state budget for preschool for kids from low-income families, quality improvements in child care programs, and training and pay for child care providers.
The expansion of early childhood programs is supported by compelling evidence that high-quality early learning leads to increased academic success in school and life, and thus saves money in the long run. More importantly, early learning that gets all kids up to the starting line for success in kindergarten can help close the gap in academic achievement between low-income and minority children and their more affluent peers.
Early learning is, without a doubt, a powerful strategy for reducing inequality and intergenerational poverty, and the governor and Legislature should certainly be congratulated for making this investment.
However, there is much, much more to do. What the research about early brain development shows is that waiting until kids are preschool age is missing the most critical period in brain development, which comes even earlier.
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Brain development starts in the womb, and depends on the mother’s physical and mental health, safety, nutrition and sobriety. Babies and toddlers who don’t get the quality care they need end up with smaller brains. Thus, programs that holistically address prenatal, postnatal, infant and toddler care are the next frontier in funding early childhood education.
There are, of course, already people working on that under-funded frontier. Here in Thurston County, there is a Nurse Family Partnership program that provides intensive support for high-risk, first-time mothers and their babies. It’s expensive, at about $12,000 per case, but according to Don Sloma, the director of the County’s Health and Social Services Department, the program has reduced a range of bad outcomes, such as post-partum depression, welfare dependence, substance abuse, mental illness and criminal behavior. And it has improved good outcomes, including not only measures of infant and toddler well-being, but also mothers’ earnings.
It’s the comprehensiveness of the program that makes it successful. Highly trained nurses visit high-risk pregnant women who lack adequate family support and engage them in conversations about how to set up their home for a baby, and how they will support themselves and their child. They discuss how to care for both the baby and themselves, what crying means, how to play with a baby and how to cope with the challenges they will face.
This program serves 125 new families out of the 700 each year who need it.
There are similar programs around the state, but few are as comprehensive or as effective as Thurston County’s. And what the research shows is that to be effective, early intervention programs need to be robust.
The need for these services is largely a function of the poverty that produces successive generations of young, under-educated and often isolated young women who lack strong parental role models and the most elemental knowledge of what babies need to thrive.
Next time a state budget is written, this is where the big funding push in early learning needs to be.