By Alex McWard and Andrea Belgrade
Many state lawmakers are putting greater emphasis on racial equity in early childhood legislation, recognizing the long-term impacts racial discrimination has on our society.
New York Assemblymember Michaelle C. Solages (D) described how race is an essential predictive factor in many important early childhood outcomes: “A growing body of evidence, from both the biological and social sciences, shows that race is a predictive factor in the life outcomes of children. Residential racial segregation, accompanied by social and economic hardship, burdens the learning of many children of color.”
To support legislators and their staff interested in deepening their knowledge on the inequities of early childhood, NCSL held a five-part series for alumni of its Early Childhood Fellows program. NCSL engaged more than 10 nationally renowned experts who presented on topics impacting young children and their families.
Iowa Representative Michael Bergan (R) commented on the role NCSL programming plays in broadening one’s perspective and, by extension, working to build consensus and common ground on policy. “I look to NCSL to provide resources on topics that help me broaden my perspective on issues," he said. "Utilizing a racial equity lens to look at early childhood policy is no exception. To build consensus on policy we must each be willing to challenge the assumptions we hold and work to understand other viewpoints to find common ground and acceptance.”
Rosemarie Allen, president and CEO of the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence, described how the historical context for racial inequity is important for understanding why racial inequities are still present in early childhood development today.
Myra Jones-Taylor, from Zero to Three, described how racial disparities impact health quality and particularly how these health disparities have become more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Black, Latino and Native American families are disproportionately more likely to become infected. Additionally, the pandemic exacerbated barriers to prenatal care and preventative care access for these families, widening an already troubling health disparity shown to have long-term consequences. NCSL’s Khanh Nguyen discussed both state and federal policies enacted to address disparities in prenatal and perinatal care.
Camille Busette, from the Brookings Institution, described the wealth gap between Black and white Americans and corresponding issues such as homeownership, business opportunities and securing well-paying jobs. Then an NCSL policy expert summarized legislative action taken in the past year to help ameliorate such issues. A 2020 Nebraska resolution (LR 374), for example, proposed studying (1) the negative effects of redlining on racial and socioeconomic segregation, (2) the legal underpinnings of redlining and (3) the possible policy solutions to reverse redlining’s negative effects.
Some experts focused on racially biased disciplinary practices with children, low wages among early childhood workers and policy changes that could positively affect the well-being of millions of children and families. Cemeré James, from the National Black Child Development Institute, outlined a wide range of issues relating to the workforce, current challenges in research and ways to effectively assess the quality of early child care education programs. Constance Gully, president and CEO of Parents as Teachers, described how her organization adjusted to the pandemic and challenges facing the early childhood workforce. Walter Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, walked participants through research that found significant racial bias in disciplinary practices in early childhood education and shared long-term consequences from such disparities.
The communities and physical environments in which children live can have a significant effect on school readiness and developmental outcomes. Location-based health hazards or promotion strategies in children’s physical environments often intersect with race and contribute to disproportionately negative outcomes for communities of color.
Dr. Gredia Huerta-Montanez, vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Puerto Rico chapter, discussed both positive and negative environmental factors and how they can affect the health, development and well-being of children. Kathy Attar, from the Children’s Environmental Health Network, explained how children’s health can be protected from the environmental hazards found in child care facilities. Sarah Konradi, program director for the Early Childhood Health Outdoors Initiative at the National Wildlife Federation Rocky Mountain Regional Center, described the importance of quality outdoor play spaces for children and shared some examples of play space renovations based on best practices and their impacts on children.
Interested in exploring further? Visit ncsl.org to learn more about NCSL’s Early Childhood Fellows program for legislators and legislative staff and find additional resources from the inaugural Early Childhood Fellows alumni series.
Andrea Belgrade and Alex McWard are interns in NCSL’s Children and Families Program.