Early voting has begun and your vote counts!

… one area in which we truly have a consensus as a polity is investing in early education …

When considering candidates and referenda this fall, keep in mind that we are the only voice our children have.

In this mercurial campaign season, one thing remains constant: voters want Congress and the next president to work together to make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable.img_6030

The annual national poll by the First Five Years Fund shows that early childhood education is one of the best ways for candidates to connect with voters, because it is one of our top priorities — regardless of political persuasion. These numbers include 78 percent of Trump supporters and 97 percent of Clinton supporters.

Quality early childhood education is a political winner. In fact, there is overwhelming polling support — with little opposition — for a federal plan to help states and local communities provide better access to quality early care — particularly for low and moderate-income working families.

Make no mistake: Child care and early education are critical public investments in the success of families and local private enterprise. High quality, affordable child care is a necessary ingredient for working parents to be successful on the job. It is also a primary building block for the fitness of our next generation of employers and employees.

Nearly three-quarters of the electorate support this conclusion: 73 percent favor and only 24 percent oppose such investment — 54 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of independents, 91 percent of Democrats. Large majorities of key swing-voter groups — including 85 percent of Latinos, 79 percent of suburban women, 65 percent of moderate/liberal Republicans, and 58 percent of Republican women — all favor investing more in early childhood education from birth to age 5.dsc_0742

How do these findings line up with the work of our state and local elected officials?

The most recent legislative session sent home a multi-million dollar, pre-school backpack, worth just south of $8.5 million ($8,390,345) — across the NC Pre-K program, children’s developmental service agencies and the Nurse Family Partnership program — along with important, follow-up study committees to bring recommendations forward in 2017 and 2018.

The investments are quite modest, but real, and garnered support across the political spectrum.

Only teacher raises and an additional $34 million toward private vouchers received more. (Is there a voice among the salons for the voucher-subsidy system to support families’ pre-k choices?)

To keep things in perspective, North Carolina’s early education system is yet to recover from the devastating bipartisan cuts in early learning that took place between 2010 and 2012, reducing overall birth-to-5 funding by more than 25 percent, from $381 million to $279 million.

As in so many other endeavors, however, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County may be growing as an innovation hub for early learning.

We know what high quality early learning looks like and how to measure it. We have a limited, but high quality, mixed public-private child-care delivery system, managed by private independent and corporate providers, as well as Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools, made possible through pooling the available federal and state Child Care Development Funds (Social Services), Head Start (Family Services, Inc.), NC Pre-K (Smart Start, Inc.) and Title I (Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools) funds with parental resources.

However, for example among our 4-year-old children, these funds reach only about a quarter of our children. And there is much evidence that perhaps as many as 90 percent of households would place their children in 4-year-old classrooms, if they could afford the $8,000 in tuition costs.

Champions of children and economic development can take some encouragement from the most recent, very cautious restoration in birth-to-five state investment. However, it is not nearly what we need, and critical, local private initiative is stepping up.

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust has set aside approximately $2.5 million in annual spending for the next decade in its Great Expectations early education program, which begins at birth. The Reynolds American Foundation is leading a coalition of visionary corporate donors in the ambitious Project Impact to the tune of approximately $6 million annual support in Forsyth County, 4-year-old through third-grade classrooms. That about matches in Forsyth County what the legislature has managed to find for the entire state!

Is this level of private investment in early education sustainable? We doubt it. But advocates plan to work with donors to make the case for greater public commitment — local, state and federal — to early learning and pre-k funding.

The whole state is watching our local experiment. We cannot continue to short-change our families and young children. We must ensure that innovative local, private-public partnerships help more of our children succeed, our families thrive and our community prosper.

That’s the clear message from most of us to all the candidates: from City Hall to Jones Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Much of this post originally appeared in the July 22, 2016 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, under the title, “On the road to recovery and innovation in early education.”