Talking Early Learning with Conservative Think Tank American Enterprise Institute


Building a true birth-to-five system.

Intentional investments.

I’ve used these phrases many times in my four years at Thrive Washington, and it’s great when I get to hear them used throughout the country, especially in wildly different settings.

Recently, it happened at a meeting I attended that was hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington DC-based conservative think tank. (Thrive is proud to be a bipartisan organization, so it’s not too surprising that I would be invited to this conversation AND, just a year ago, have spoken about our equity efforts at Al Sharpton’s birthday.)

One of the big themes of the two-day session of thought leaders from across the country was questioning whether early learning system building work too closely mimicks the K-12 system.

In our state, we do our best to connect early learning and K-12 efforts — because that’s what’s best for children and families, but we have also been very intentional about our early learning equity work being a chance to start fresh, using what has been effective in other systems without being tied to their approaches. We know that public systems in our country often perpetuate disparities and that structural racism is still a huge obstacle to eliminating the opportunity gap that starts in infancy and persists. Many states lean on K-12 to scale up their Pre-K programs, which has advantages. But, one of the biggest trade-offs to this approach is that you take investments out of community-based organizations that are better suited to meet the racial, ethnic and cultural needs of families. I am encouraged that Washington state has kept firm in our commitment to offer a mixed delivery model for Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), our state-funded preschool.

We also had an active dialogue about the national trend to drive most of our early learning investments to four year olds.

The brain science is clear that prenatal to age three is a critical time in a child’s brain development. At Thrive, we support a substantial state investment in ECEAP, but we also want the state to sustain and expand its investments in home visiting programs for infants and toddlers. And, just two years ago, the Legislature passed the landmark Early Start act, a true birth-to-5 investment that raises the quality of licensed childcare for children who need it most.

Looking across the country, it is unclear where the overall trajectory of the early learning movement is at this point. What is clear is that while Pre-K can be an important investment to help children reach their full potential, it is by no means the starting point or the finish line.

If we’re serious about helping all children be ready for kindergarten and eliminating race a predictor of school success, we need to provide robust supports and services from birth and build trust and connections in the family, friend and neighbor settings where a large majority of young children spend their days.

We are always on the list of states everybody watches to see what’s coming up next. Many thanks to AEI for giving me a wealth of ideas to bring back home to weigh in on that journey.