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Early Childhood Learning and Development: Key Themes and Findings

In April 2014, the Bipartisan Policy Center launched an effort to explore promising bipartisan approaches to strengthen early childhood policies at the federal and state levels.

In the first phase of this effort, BPC conducted more than 75 interviews with policymakers, agency and business leaders, and early childhood advocates across the political spectrum. The aim of the interviews was to identify areas of potential bipartisan agreement and to better understand longstanding philosophical disagreements over the appropriate role for government in improving children’s early years. Next, BPC organized a series of state-based roundtable discussions to uncover additional areas of bipartisan consensus; engage champions from the business, military, and communications sectors; and gather examples of effective local and state early childhood policies to inform federal policy development.

Roundtable discussions were held in five cities: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Dallas, Texas; Durham, North Carolina; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Cheyenne, Wyoming. In addition, BPC convened several meetings in Washington, D.C., to gather feedback and share findings with leading experts in early childhood development and political communications.

These conversations took place as the 2016 campaign and election brought into sharp relief the struggles of working families. As the new administration and Congress seek opportunities to deliver on policies to support working families, policies focused on early childhood well-being, development, and learning provide a promising area for potential bipartisan cooperation.

This paper describes the findings of these outreach efforts. It begins by highlighting some key points and takeaways from the interviews and roundtables. Subsequent sections provide further context for the current policy debate and offer a more detailed account of the different issues and perspectives that are driving that debate, while also highlighting the opportunities and challenges for advancing early childhood policies.

Key Points and Takeaways

Several themes and concerns emerged repeatedly over the course of the project. BPC’s intensive group and individual discussions with a wide, politically diverse, and multidisciplinary array of experts and stakeholders yielded several areas of widespread agreement:

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  1. Parents and families play a primary role in successful early childhood outcomes.
    This universally shared view translates to broad bipartisan support for policy approaches that support parents’ choices and preferences, that empower and engage parents in program design and implementation, and that emphasize voluntary rather than mandatory participation.

  2. Given the critical importance of children’s early years in learning and brain development, investments in early childhood provide lifelong individual benefits as well as societal and economic ones.
    A robust body of evidence-based brain science highlights the significance of this early growth period for later achievement and career success. Businesses understand that they have a stake in early childhood development because of its long-term implications for the American workforce and U.S. firms’ global competitiveness.

  3. The federal government has a valuable role to play in supporting better early childhood outcomes.
    Though BPC found substantial differences of opinion concerning the appropriate form and scope of government involvement, there is considerable bipartisan support for the proposition that government has a role in (1) ensuring that parents have an opportunity to make the best choices about their children’s early years, and (2) providing certain programs and benefits to families with young children, including tax incentives. In addition, there is broad support for federal funding of further research in early childhood development, as well as federal efforts to promote innovation and disseminate information on best practices and programs.

  4. Quality matters in early childhood programs.
    Poorly designed programs, or programs that offer only isolated exposure to quality learning opportunities, will not provide lasting benefits. Thus, it is crucial—particularly in an era of scarce resources and competing budget priorities—that public investments be directed to those programs and approaches that have proved to really work.

  5. Success in this arena requires functional government partnerships and open and honest dialogue.
    Effective early childhood programs require collaboration among federal, state, and local governments as well as the private sector and parents. Stakeholders across the political spectrum also need to be able to have frank conversations, uninhibited by ideological assumptions and sacred cows that limit policy solutions.

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