Federal Action Lags Behind Public Opinion on Early Ed

Blog Post
Photo by Daniel Michelson
July 17, 2014

The results of a new bipartisan poll released today by the First Five Years Fund reveal that Americans overwhelmingly support government investment in early childhood education—regardless of party affiliation. According to a survey of 800 registered voters, “children getting a strong start in life” ranks second only to “increasing jobs and economic growth” in terms of national priorities. And in light of a report that New America released this week detailing proposals to grow and improve our national investment in early childhood education, the poll can offer some hope for lawmakers and other stakeholders on the way forward.

As displayed in the graphic below, most Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike agree on the importance of investing in our nation’s youngest learners. And while we might expect voters’ support for early education policies would diminish once they see the price tag—a common reason that policies popular in theory don’t become a reality—it doesn’t appear to be the case here. A majority of Americans surveyed said that sufficient funding for education was more important than holding the line on taxes and spending. And a whopping 71 percent of respondents said they would support early education policies even if they increased the deficit in the short‐term, but paid for themselves in the long-term, as much of the research suggests is the case with early education.


The poll asked voters whether they would support a proposal thatwould increase federal investment to help states provide more access to high-quality early childhood programs for low- and moderate-income families” at the cost of $100 billion over ten years. Although not explicitly stated in the survey, this proposal closely resembles President Obama’s FY 2015 early education budget proposal. An impressive 71 percent of voters expressed support for the proposal, with substantial majorities across all political parties and subgroups of swing voters, including Hispanics, women, and moderates.

Even though public support for early education is arguably stronger than ever before, the federal government hasn’t made much headway. At this morning’s panel discussion on the poll findings, Jim Messina, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff, pointed out that early education was one of very few winners in the January 2014 budget deal. However, he also recognized that the $1 billion boost to Head Start was just “a drop in the bucket.”

During the panel both Messina and Kevin Madden, former Senior Advisor to Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, acknowledged that supporting early childhood education can only help candidates running in 2014 and 2016. Certainly likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has only increased her profile on the subject in recent months, joining the national ‘Too Small to Fail’ initiative.

Still, just because Congress has been slow to move on early education doesn’t mean progress is at a standstill – far from it. This past year, states and cities across the country increased funding and expanded access for early education programs—from Vermont’s newly signed law guaranteeing all 3- and 4 year-olds access to pre-K, to California’s FY 2015 budget that includes an additional $155 million for additional slots in the state’s pre-K program.


While these examples are steps in the right direction, though, progress hasn’t kept up with public demand. The overwhelming majority of voters polled said that they would like to see the federal government act on this issue within the next two years.

Making significant improvements in early education largely depends on adequate funding. Earlier this week, my colleagues at New America released Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education, which offers a number of recommendations for improving our early education system. Making these recommendations a reality, the report says, rests largely on policymakers’ ability to tap “into sources for predictable, sustainable, and increased public funding.”

The paper suggests increasing states’ investment in pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds to secure more funding. They explain that “the federal government funds only about 12 percent of K–12 education; states and school districts share the rest of the costs almost evenly. Pre-K should be no different.” Of course, this will be difficult for states to accomplish right away, so federal assistance will be necessary as an interim measure to scale up early education. To that end, the authors suggest a matching grant similar to the one proposed in the survey and by President Obama.

Our report also encourages federal and state lawmakers to “consider re-appropriating foregone revenue from the tax code, forming public-private partnerships to promote early learning, exploring and rigorously evaluating social-impact bond initiatives, and rebalancing state and federal commitments to early childhood education.” If increasing revenue isn’t feasible at the moment, policymakers need to get creative with the money already coming in.

As was echoed throughout today’s panel discussion, the survey findings, and Subprime Learning, now is the time to invest in early childhood education. The evidence base on early education is growing by the day and public support is at an unprecedented high—we just need policymakers to show us the money. And they need to figure out how to do it soon, because this is an issue candidates will not be able to ignore in the upcoming elections."