Opinion: Early childhood education is crucial
“When an ir-re-sistible force, meets an old im-mov-able object like this, you can bet just as sure as you live, something’s got to give.”
Johnny Mercer wrote it. Frank Sinatra sang it, and we all fell in love with its optimistic take on inevitability.
Today, the romantic 1950s lyrics evoke a circumstance Kansans may soon face. It’s the collision of a contemporary force with an immovable object and it’s set to happen when the irrepressible progress of early childhood education meets the politics of school funding affordability.
The result may soon be coming based on findings of a 2018 $4.5 million needs assessment grant.
The Preschool Development Grant Birth through (age) Five was awarded to the Kansas State Department of Education. The Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, the Department for Children and Families and the Department of Health and Environment are leading this work with KSDE.
The early childhood needs were assessed by a variety of methods including a listening tour, social media queries and interviews with parents, health-care providers, teachers, child-care workers and other groups who confirmed what many expected: uneven program coverage and quality.
Kansas’ youngest citizens currently are taught and cared for in a broad, loose network made up of home, charitable, paid-private and public resources. While the assessment did show many good outcomes across the state, two key findings revealed the sources of the concerns.
First, the findings showed that experiences of families with young children in Kansas are shaped by where they live. Not only did program and service delivery vary across the state but differences also existed from place to place within communities.
The second key finding was that some young children are growing up in families where health, social-emotional growth and basic learning needs are not being met. The research found seven potential issues may be causing this problem. Families with young children find entry to high-quality programs and services difficult to access or unavailable or hard to navigate across systems.
The research findings implied that the departments need to work together to address the remaining needs. These revolve around aligning the programs and services for efficiency and robust quality, increasing collaboration and coordination among the departments and addressing facilities and workforce needs. A vision statement that ties together the early childhood missions of the four departments will be formed. Increasing public/private partnerships also may be considered.
Getting the right balance between individual responsibilities (for families) and shared responsibility (from local, state and federal funding) is a complex challenge.
Even though much progress can be made, tightening systems and encouraging non-governmental funding cannot fully provide programs and services where none exist. As a result, the most important decisions for Kansans in the future will be the allocation of public resources for early childhood needs.
A National Scientific Council research report released in 2007 provided a powerful finding: Responsible citizenship and lifetime productivity depend on the ability of government to invest wisely in our youngest citizens.
Effective early childhood policies will not eliminate all social inequalities or guarantee economic development. Nevertheless, when early childhood programs and services are provided in the lives of individual children, the well-being of both the young and the larger community is advanced.
Supported by research and backed by the public “something’s gotta give” to enable comprehensive, highest-quality early childhood initiatives in Kansas.
— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean and professor emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.