The Problem. One of the most exciting themes of Governor Pete Ricketts’ new administration is his commitment to a collaborative approach to tackling problems, and increased efficiency in government. These two values fit together naturally—collaborations that unite fiscal, material or administrative resources, information and expertise can breed more efficient, effective ways to transform Nebraska for the better. All too often, however, it’s hard to make that combination happen, especially in the realm of public systems that traditionally operate in isolation from one another.
How we address the development of young children is a case in point. An abundance of neurological, educational and medical research tells us that a child’s prospects to thrive are profoundly influenced by the quality of their earliest environments. For many of Nebraska’s children, this begins with child care—a developmentally crucial environment for infants and toddlers—and continues through the transition into the K-12 system. When children consistently experience safe, cognitively stimulating and emotionally supportive environments during these years, their life trajectories are more likely to steer toward a productive, self-sufficient adulthood. This is particularly essential for children who face serious risk factors to their early development.
Child care and education, however, fall under the purview of two entirely different state systems in Nebraska, each of which approaches early childhood from a unique standpoint. For the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees child care, the issue revolves around ensuring that children’s most fundamental requirements for health and safety are met while in care. Nebraska’s education system, on the other hand, focuses on whether children begin kindergarten ready to learn and prepared to advance academically toward college or career.
But the science of early childhood development tells us that these two aspects of early childhood development shouldn’t be addressed as separate considerations. Early child care environments are, or ought to be, learning environments—just as the fundamental health and safety of young children are necessary for quality learning to occur. Unfortunately, administrative barriers, budgetary restrictions and statutory obstacles frequently get in the way of a coordinated, cohesive approach to helping our youngest kids develop.
Only about 7 percent of Nebraska’s at-risk infants and toddlers are being cared for in settings that meet verifiable, high-quality standards—that is, environments that not only ensure children’s physical well-being, but also cultivate the early cognitive and character skills essential for success in the K-12 system. If we are to successfully put more of Nebraska’s at-risk children on a path toward lifelong success and maximize the efficiency and efficacy of our state systems, we have to seek out opportunities for genuine, productive collaboration.
The Solution. This year, some of our most innovative policymakers, including Senators Campbell and Sullivan, have introduced legislation that unites the efforts of Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education to address this issue. LB547 (incorporating elements of LB489) creates a common ground for Nebraska’s child care and the K-12 education communities to work together within the structure of the Sixpence Early Learning Fund, reinforced by Step Up to Quality, Nebraska’s quality rating and improvement program.
For the better part of a decade, Sixpence has created quality-driven, fiscally accountable partnerships between public school districts and other community agencies to provide developmentally positive early experiences for infants and toddlers at risk. Independent evaluations tell us these interventions are working to narrow the achievement gap before these children start kindergarten? Nevertheless, we are still only reaching a fraction of Nebraska’s youngest, most vulnerable kids. Although school districts across the state are eager to become more involved in Sixpence and early childhood generally, they often lack the resources, personnel and facilities to do so. Including child care providers in Sixpence would create significant new opportunities for public and private partners to work together to increase the quality and reach of services that help young children get the right start in life.
At present, administrative requirements mandate that service providers hold a teaching certificate issued by the Nebraska Department of Education to partner with a public school district within the structure of the Sixpence. However, very few child care owners, directors or staff in Nebraska hold such a certificate or possess a clear prospect of obtaining one. LB547 represents a major step forward by enabling school districts to satisfy the teaching certificate requirement while involving private child care providers fully in Sixpence partnerships.
LB547 require participating providers to enroll in Nebraska’s Step Up to Quality program. These providers must achieve at least a Step 3 on the rating scale within three years to remain eligible for Sixpence funding. By leveraging Step Up to Quality in this way, this legislation will connect more child care providers to a variety of tools and resources that can help them build the overall caliber of their programs and personnel. Working together, Sixpence and Step Up to Quality deliver the means and measure for significant improvement in the care and education of many of our youngest, at-risk kids.
Who Benefits? So who benefits from LB547? Child care providers gain access to an extraordinarily rich array of resources to help them respond to the growing market demand for high-quality early environments. School districts benefit by ensuring more children arrive in kindergarten classrooms better prepared to learn alongside their peers. Nebraska’s taxpayers can be confident that our public systems are less fragmented and working more effectively and efficiently in collaboration.
Ultimately, of course, the biggest beneficiaries are the children. Sixpence and Step Up to Quality give more of our most vulnerable infants and toddlers access to safe, stimulating environments that will better prepare them to thrive in school and grow toward a productive, self-sufficient adulthood. That alone is something worth finding common ground on.