This could be a defining year for our state’s future if we choose to follow the will of North Carolinians – and I’m not referring to the presidential election. In the midst of a divisive election year, voters of all stripes – Republicans, independents and Democrats – wholeheartedly agree that building a stronger North Carolina is rooted in building a strong foundation for learning for our children.
North Carolinians want more investments in early learning – including providing greater access to affordable child care, Smart Start, NC Pre-K and programs that build parenting skills. A new bipartisan poll from the First Five Years Fund and the NC Early Childhood Foundation shows that North Carolina voters want the state to do more when it comes to early learning. The poll was conducted by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic firm Hart Research.
The support for early learning is overwhelming. Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina voters say we should be doing more for young children’s education – up nine points from two years ago. Voters recognize that these investments have both short- and long-term benefits. More than 3 out of 4 voters say that high-quality early learning programs set children up for success in elementary, middle and high school; help children achieve their third grade reading goals; and create a larger pool of highly skilled workers in the long term.
Fortunately, North Carolina can deliver on early learning for our children if we seize the opportunities before us.
▪ First, we know more than we have ever known about how children’s brains develop. Brain scientists have discovered that during children’s earliest years, their experiences are built into their bodies – shaping the brain’s architecture and impacting how biological systems develop. Positive early experiences build a strong foundation for learning and future health. Furthermore, research tells us that all aspects of a child’s development are important. When children have good health starting from birth, high-quality education including early care, pre-kindergarten, and the early grades, and strong and supportive families and communities, they have the best opportunity to be on track by third grade – a critical year that predicts future academic and career success.
Voters understand that children’s well-being and education are interconnected. An overwhelming majority (89 percent) of voters say the state should give young children a clearer pathway to success through better integration of early health, parent education and early childhood education so that these services work together. This view was held by voters of all political persuasions, including 78 percent of Republicans, 90 percent of Independents and 96 percent of Democrats.
▪ Second, our state leaders are taking action. A collaborative of diverse stakeholders – including the state’s early learning and education, public agency, policy, philanthropic and business leaders – are working together to make sure that children have everything they need, starting at birth, to be reading on track by third grade. These leaders have identified a common set of data indicators – measures of success – to track, and will be developing shared strategies for taking action to make progress. They are committed to working across systems that promote health and development, support families and communities, and advance high quality birth-to-eight learning.
These stakeholders’ work was recognized by the NC General Assembly. In the 2016-2017 state budget, legislators required departments and organizations that administer, support or study early education to develop a comprehensive approach to early childhood education, birth through third grade. The legislation mandated cross-agency accountability with a comprehensive set of data indicators, and advised consideration of the shared data indicators described above to monitor and measure success of the early childhood education systems.
Finally, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind) recognizes that the foundation of learning is being built from birth. The law strengthens federal support for early learning and provides new opportunities for birth-through-third grade alignment, accountability and funding. The North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation is partnering with the Office of Early Learning at the NC Department of Public Instruction to convene a group of state leaders to develop recommended birth-to-third-grade strategies to be included in the state plan.
There are few issues that enjoy this level of bipartisan support – support that only continues to increase. Every candidate for public office should have an early learning strategy, and voters should ask them about their plans. Voters want North Carolina’s elected leaders to do more to create a stronger North Carolina, both now and for the future.
Tracy Zimmerman is executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.