Presidential candidates hoping to attract millennials, Hispanics and swing state voters in 2016 could be well-advised to make early education a key part of their education platform, according to the results of a new national poll showing that 76 percent of voters support the idea of spending federal money to expand public preschool.
Commissioned for the third year running by the D.C.-based early childhood advocacy organization, First Five Years Fund, this year’s poll included several new questions including one on how favorably respondents would view a candidate interested in increasing funding for early childhood programs. Fifty-four percent said they would hold a more positive view of such a candidate.
“It’s polling so well that there’s little downside to running on it,” said Kris Perry, executive director of First Five Years Fund. “Based on the evidence, I hope a couple of them–someone on each side–will take it up.”
Perry and her colleagues have already met with several of the Republican campaigns to show candidates how broad support for early childhood education is on both sides of the aisle. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans, and 94 percent of Democrats, polled said they’d support spending federal money to expand public early education programs. (Three of the many foundations that support First Five Years Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Heising-Simons Foundation, are also among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)
“We say the same thing to every campaign office,” Perry said. “We show them the poll, we show them their record and we show them the benefits of early education. Maybe it will pay off, maybe will see them wanting to discuss it openly.”
Perry said her group hasn’t yet met with the Democratic campaigns, but it would be hard to think what they might teach that party’s current frontrunner. Hillary Clinton has been a champion of improving publicly funded early education and childcare since her days as a law student at Yale, when she extended her J.D. program to add an extra year studying child development. In fact, she wrote an entire book in 1996 based on the idea that a successful society is one that cares for its children.
“All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are responsible for deciding whether our children are raised in a nation that doesn’t just espouse family values but values families and children,” she wrote on the first page of that book, “It Takes a Village.”
Hillary Clinton still lists high quality early education and better parental leave among her top issues and she brought up both at the recent Democratic debate. Before announcing her presidential run, she spent many months traveling the country as the famous face at the head of the Too Small To Fail campaign to increase parental knowledge of early learning at home, which is co-run by the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
None of the Republican candidates have come out that strongly on the issue, though former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all oversaw states with public preschool programs, some of which grew under their leadership. None of the Republican candidates who were member of the U.S. Congress when a proposal resembling the one asked about in the poll was on the floor voted in favor of it.
In addition to its direct political findings, the poll found that 88 percent of respondents agreed (66 percent strongly) with the statement “Access to quality early childhood education is not a luxury, but a need for many families.” And 89 percent of respondents ranked “making sure that our children get a strong start in life” as important (49 percent said “extremely important”) to strengthening the country’s middle class. But the questions did not get much more detailed than that.
Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of the early childhood initiative at New America, a public policy think tank, said she wished the poll had asked specific questions about trade-offs voters would be willing to make in exchange for more early childhood care. “If there is a larger investment at the federal level, then it either means something else is going to be cut or not invested in or there will be some sort of tax increase,” she said. “But there weren’t questions that really hit that home.”
Bornfreund said she was pleased to see that early childhood education was popular among voters and hoped presidential candidates would take it as a suggestion to focus on the issue in the coming year. Even if early education makes a bigger splash during this year’s campaign than it has in the recent past, it’s unlikely to beat 1988, said Helen Blank, director of childcare and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center.
“Childcare in 1988 was actually one of the key issues,” said Blank, who has worked for organizations promoting higher quality childcare for decades. “There was a bill going to Congress; it was all over the papers and both candidates were talking about it.”
That bill, which would have increased childcare subsidies for low- and moderate-income families, failed. And while Blank says every serious presidential candidate since has had a plan for early education, the conversation has never reached such a fever pitch, nor does she expect 2016 to break that pattern.