Early Childhood Policy Q&A – Barbara Reisman, Maher Charitable Foundation

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What do you see as the most critical policy issues currently facing the early childhood field?
Money, money and money. We need to expand, or at least maintain, federal investment in early childhood education, care and health so that children and families have access to the high-quality programs and services they need. We need a comprehensive family friendly policy agenda that makes it possible for families to work, to achieve economic stability, to get the support they need for their children’s healthy social-emotional and cognitive development. Paid parental leave is an important component of this policy.

We have to push for what we need for the future, but we also have to acknowledge successes as they come – for example, the recent win on the Child Care Development Block Grant – the largest expansion of funding (over what period of time) is impressive especially considering the current federal budget climate.  That win is a tribute to the long-standing and persistent work of the national advocacy organizations and their state-based partners.  We need to continue to support that work and invest in the capacity of the organizations that do it.

What roles can funders play in supporting federal policy and moving these issues?
Funders have several important roles to play.  We can support advocacy and communications organizations at the national and state levels. We can use our power to convene. We can use our collective voice to articulate our foundations’ values and the vision we have for a high-quality early childhood system.  We have a lot of experience to share – lessons learned from grantmaking successes and failures —  that can contribute to the education and awareness of policy makers and influencers.  We can also encourage our trustees to speak up and reach out to other foundations to encourage them to join our work.

There are three aspects to policy work – formulation, adoption and implementation.  Too often we ignore implementation and that’s where things can fall apart.  Funders can play a huge role in supporting implementation of federal and state policy with intensity and fidelity at the state and local levels and then support the documentation of the lessons learned.

There is a strong relationship between support of state and federal policy.  Investments in state policy often influence federal policy.  We can help states use federal money effectively – organizations like the BUILD Initiative do a good job of supporting states in successful implementation.  State innovation can lead to improvements in federal policy.  We saw this clearly with the Race to the Top Early Learning Partnerships, federal grants that built on the systems building successes at the state level.  We have also seen it with the preschool movement.  We’re seeing state level innovation now around paid parental leave and infant and toddler programs.  Hopefully, these innovations will inspire and inform federal policy.

 What does your foundation do in this arena and why?
Our focus is on state policy in New Jersey.  We have made extensive investments in Pre-K Our Way, a nonpartisan, nonprofit statewide advocacy program with a singular focus: expansion of New Jersey’s existing high-quality, state-funded, full-day pre-k program to hundreds more communities and to the 50,000 three- and four-year-olds waiting each year for access to New Jersey’s pre-k. We’ve recently celebrated a big win: New Jersey’s newly elected Governor Phil Murphy presented a state budget that saw the first sizable increase in preschool in nearly a decade, along with a pledge to extend it statewide within four years. He proposed adding $57 million to the $688 million now spent by the state on preschool aimed at low-income students and communities. This is a fulfillment of his campaign promise and will move the state towards fulfilling the promise it made to young children and their families when the legislature adopted a school funding formula that provided money for high quality preK for all income eligible three and four year olds – in 2008!

How can ECFC support its members in addressing policy issues?
ECFC already does a great job of keeping us informed of federal policy opportunities.  That informs our work – at the state and local levels as well as the federal level – by providing a context.  It’s helpful to learn about what our peers are doing, how they are supporting policy advocacy and communications.  I think ECFC can also help members make the case within their foundations by providing tool kits and talking points.

And ECFC can facilitate collaborative thinking and funding so that we can do more together than we can do separately.  It can help us find and use our collective voice to reach out to  others with our vision of a comprehensive set of supports for all families with young children.

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