A Year After #Rally4Babies, Signs that Washington Increasingly Gets the Message
Congress returns to Washington today after the July 4th recess. The 2015 appropriations process for many programs serving infants and toddlers has hit the summer doldrums, with few prospects for speedy resolution. Still, with the first anniversary of the #Rally4Babies tomorrow (July 8), we should take stock of recent signs that Washington increasingly “gets it” that learning happens from the start—and so should our investments. Thinking about how that message has resonated should give us clues to how to keep the rally going.
Before the aforesaid appropriations process ground to a halt, the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education sent a clear signal that very young children were still very much on their minds—and their priority list. A proposed increase of $348 million for early learning included a $65 million bump-up (from $500 million in 2014) for Early Head Start (EHS)-Child Care Partnerships; an additional $100 million for child care; and an additional $100 million for preschool development grants. Consideration of the bill by the full Committee seems on long-term hold, and the House has yet to schedule any sessions on funding for these programs. While it looks like funding levels won’t be resolved until this fall or even after the election, we should take every opportunity to underscore the need to continue early learning funding momentum.
While this process plays out, we should celebrate two very real accomplishments regarding services for young children and families. One is the extension of the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program for an additional 6 months with a full year of money ($400 million). The other will send a lot of real dollars—500 million of them—to improve early care and learning experiences for infants and toddlers flowing down to communities later this year through the EHS-Child Care Partnership grants. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the application details in June. (Check ZERO TO THREE’s webpage for resources.) Buzz from the field suggests real excitement about this opportunity to change the way we think about the various settings in which very young children spend their days. Fundamental to this change is the understanding that babies’ brain development is molded by the quality of whatever experiences come their way—not by labeling a program as “educational” or just a “work support.” With 6 million infants and toddlers in child care, some for many hours a week, a lot of brain construction is going on in that space.
The importance of child care to infant-toddler development has not been lost of some Members of Congress. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1697, H.R. 3461), introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (IA) in the Senate and Representatives George Miller (CA), Richard Hanna (NY), and Michael Grimm (NY) in the House, included an authorization for the EHS-Child Care Partnerships as well as the option for states to set aside part of the big PreK funding stream for infants and toddlers. Senator Harkin went especially big for babies with a $4 billion funding target for the partnerships (compared to $1.4 billion in the House bill and the President’s proposal). The Senate also passed a reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant that created a 3% set-aside of funds to improve the quality of infant-toddler care, incorporating parts of Senator Al Franken’s Infant and Toddler Care Improvement Act (S. 1065).
In the past few months, two House Members have picked up the baton for babies. In May, newly-elected Representative Katherine Clark (MA) introduced as her first bill, companion legislation (H.R. 4680) to the Franken bill. In June, Representative Lois Frankel (FL) introduced H.R. 5000, which would provide $2 billion in mandatory child care funds to expand access to child care for infants and toddlers and authorize $500 million in discretionary funding for quality improvement activities. By singling out infants and toddlers, these bills show the message is getting through that quality child care matters when it comes to supporting the development of the youngest children.
So what have we learned since the #Rally4Babies? To be honest, we understand these are relatively small steps forward in light of the fact that almost half of all babies and toddlers live in distressed economic circumstances. But we also know we can make a difference. We need to celebrate the fact that early care and learning was a big priority in a tight budget year, and that a large portion of the increases went to programs serving infants and toddlers. This wouldn’t have happened without the thousands of signatures on the Baby Rally petition that generated almost 200,000 messages to the President and Congress or the phone calls to ask for cosponsors for various bills. Efforts to extend MIECHV on a “Doc fix” bill might have fulfilled the prophesy of mission impossible, but for these voices and the field’s tireless efforts to educate legislators on what home visiting means for parents who want to do the right thing in nurturing their children’s early development. While PreK still gets the most attention in the overall early learning agenda, the voice for babies has gotten appreciably louder. As this agenda has evolved, it has become more pointedly birth-to-five, and child care is becoming a more recognized part of the mix.
What do we do next? More of the same. We can’t let our efforts, our energy, or our voices flag, even if immediate opportunities for moving forward don’t present themselves. Look for openings to contact Congressional offices. For example, ask your Members to cosponsor bills, identify legislative assistants who work on children’s issues and send information from your state about the importance of the first years for later success in school and life (stumped? try your state’s Baby Facts) or attend town hall meetings and ask questions about what policymakers will do to ensure our future workforce is prepared. Watch for alerts on Strong Start for Children activities in which you can participate and highlight the fact that learning happens from the start.
The past year’s effort from the entire early childhood community has created a buzz about early learning that we can’t let diminish. We need to keep it up. Only then will advances in early care and learning policy move from being, in policymakers’ eyes, a nice thing we could do to being something we as a nation must do.