We continue to ease into a new year, complete with crossed-out dates on checks, fleeting personal resolutions, and the trek by legislators back to state capitals to do the People’s Work.
It’s been several years since I last walked down the aisle of my state legislature, as finishing touches were made toward establishing voluntary, universal pre-K through public-private partnerships. It was the end of a long walk spanning several years, different Commissioners, and numerous committees. Though the outcome was generally assured, devilish details eventually gave way to compromise, but I felt a sense of relief when I walked out the State House door that last time, knowing that the greater good prevailed.
I learned many valuable lessons during the protracted process, one of which harkens back to my merit-badge days of being a Boy Scout. The motto “Be prepared” could not have been more sage. Detractors sat ready to pounce on any misstep to derail the initiative, and one sure show-stopper would be my inability to provide a concise answer to a very basic question from an audience who did not share my background in child development and early education.
Between my frequent, often unplanned, visits to committee hearings, I prepped myself to succinctly address several two- or three-word questions I knew would eventually arise. These questions served as mantras when I walked from my office to theirs, specifically:
So what? Why was it worth legislators’ time and the state’s resources to even consider early education? Informing them of relevant research and connecting the dots linking strategies to benefits and costs, both human and financial, was my job. If they were concerned about the “cost of bad outcomes,” here was my opportunity to offer a proven solution. I immerse myself daily in this topic, they don’t.
What about . . . ? It is imperative for every policymaker to consider the merits and faults of policy proposals. There is no shortage of reports or opinions on charged topics such as voluntary universal pre-K, so it’s important to be current in understanding established and emerging research, and recognizing differing viewpoints or conflicting findings. Questions inevitably arise about individual studies whose results contradict the preponderance of scientific findings. Single studies should be read with great interest and skepticism. Meta-analyses provide a stronger, more compelling foundation.
Who cares? I am of the opinion that everyone cares about early education, or will, when they learn the facts. Know your allies, especially those who may be more in the middle. At the same time, some are more resistant for a number of reasons. Don’t discount others who don’t share your beliefs; work with them. It is important to understand the views of all parties, particularly if a “livable compromise” or common ground can be achieved.
Now what? After a compelling case is made and people are on board, they are looking for a quarterback to guide them to the goal line. Momentum is maintained when they can be handed a playbook with next steps and options. You’ll lose them with a tome, so keep it short, perhaps with a one-pager pulled from your back pocket.
How much? I recall an old Snoopy cartoon when he thought “Every time someone has a good idea, somebody has to bring up the budget.” This is part of a legislator’s responsibility. It’s a 2-part question, however. First, people need to know how much it will cost taxpayers for start-up and long-term operation. Second, estimates should be provided for what it is currently costing the state to not have a program, in terms of “bad outcomes” such as special education, retention, drop-out, and incarceration, and how an investment on the front end would yield savings over time. As methods for estimating cost savings are refined, answers to these questions are expected and easily provided.
Quick questions deserve quick, compelling, accurate responses. Yet time often conspires against conducting the necessary research and making it comprehensible when important policy decisions are on the line. Fortunately, the field has an indispensable resource in the form of translational research centers (TRC) such as the National Institute for Early Education Research, HighScope Educational Research Foundation, and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. TRCs conduct, evaluate and translate scientifically valid research into practical, evidence-based information essential for policymakers and influencers to establish sound policy. I relied heavily on information from TRCs to inform committee members and state leaders and results are now speaking for themselves in terms of student achievement.
Although emotion and opinion play roles in shaping policy, we are better served when solid research informs conscionable policy. TRCs move us closer in that direction and for that, my last two words are “Thank you.”
Jim Squires, Ph.D. is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research and Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes. He formerly served as Early Childhood Programs Coordinator at the Vermont Department of Education when Act 62 was signed into law.