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Are early child care and development programs an expense or an investment?

Participants in the early child care roundtableA roundtable discussion with more than 20 legislators and staff from across the nation wrestled with that issue and a wide variety of related  topics during a session at NCSL's Capitol Forum earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

Sheila Smith, director of early childhood for the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, laid out a number of policies that help infants and toddlers thrive: supporting parent well-being; providing high quality early learning environments; increasing access to health and mental health; and interventions and developmental surveillance for exceptionally vulnerable children, including those in deep poverty, who have disabilities or are at risk of homelessness.

Smith mentioned two programs in which a number of states are investing.

Help Me Grow monitors and supports very young children's development including reaching out to pediatricians and training them to do developmental screenings, she said. Child First is an evidence-based program for the highest risk infants and toddler that provides home-based services for children and parents who are in very stressful environments characterized by violence, neglect, mental illness or substance abuse.

Participating lawmakers sought more information about brain science research and the return on investment for early childhood programs. Amid the concern for minimizing poor outcomes in young kids was the reality of the costs of prevention and the difficulty in convincing colleagues of the value.

“I'm curious about messaging because in our state both chambers doubled  down on eliminating funds for early childhood educational support," said Representative Cathy Connolly of Wyoming (D). How do we keep these on the forefront when they aren't legislative priorities and aren't constituent priorities except for a narrow group?”

North Carolina Representative Josh Dobson (R) cited the Nurse-Family Partnership as a program that is very supported in North Carolina. It is scientifically supported and has data to back it up. To the issue of what the average legislator can sell to his home district, Dobson said, I tend to favor pre-K programs but what's sellable is subsidies because they have either work requirements or school requirements.

Concerns were also raised about vulnerable populations such as children with in the child welfare system, military and homeless families and the effects of maternal depression and trauma on infants.

Delaware grades child care programs on a one-to-five stars basis, based in the education levels of employees, said Representative Earl Jaques (D-Del.), adding that the state pays for kids who are in deep poverty to go to a five-star facility.

“We're struggling with the quality of child care in the military, said Jaques. They tend to hire a qualified person but all the others are usually moms who are there for a year or two. Most people don't realize a child who spends K-12 in the military will change schools five to nine times.

We rightly prioritize trauma services for veterans coming back from a war zone, but there are children in the inner city that experience far more violence on a daily basis and they have no resources or mental health services.

Some of the participants talked about current work going on in states, including task forces and recent state and national meetings including NCSL's Three Branch Institute, where relationships were established, which is key and has furthered the work. Early childhood systems policy work usually is creatively funded—meaning whatever a state can scrape together. One participant described it as bottle caps and chewing gum.”

The ability to provide a more market rate reimbursement for child care providers, background checks, nontraditional care hours and serving eligible families, all got mentions during the session. Also noted was the fact that what works in child care in urban settings doesn't necessarily play out in rural areas. Questions and concerns were also raised about implementing and financing the new requirements of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grants.

While some states view child care as part of the state early childhood system, some still approach them as separate silos.

Missouri Representative Marsha Haefner (R) said the state gets a lot of criticism about what we're not doing, but we can only do so much with what we have. We need to be stronger in convincing the people who control the money that this is an investment, not expense.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.