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An argument in favor of universal preschool and publicly funded early care for infants and toddlers will hit the small screen early next year in the form of a new PBS documentary series, “The Raising of America.”

The documentary series, produced with funding from the Kellogg Foundation and the California Endowment, features experts from the U.S. and abroad discussing their research in between images and interviews of families with young children. When it’s finished at the end of 2013, the series will consist of one hour-long show followed by five supporting half-hour episodes. So far, only one episode has been released. (See video below.)

Larry Adelman and Rachel Poulain are the lead producers of the upcoming documentary series on early childhood education, “The Raising of America.” (Photo: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today)
Larry Adelman and Rachel Poulain are the lead producers of the upcoming documentary series on early childhood education, “The Raising of America.” (Photo: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today)

Series creator and executive producer Larry Adelman, of the production company California Newsreel, is known for his work covering the effects of poverty. Adelman said he was driven to produce the series by the question, Why is America the only rich country in the world that hasn’t invested in care and education for children under age 5? The series, he said, will answer that question from the angles of health care, poverty, workplace policies and economics, among others.

Associate producer and director of public engagement Rachel Poulain hopes the series can be used to influence public policy. She’s creating a companion website that will provide information including clips and info-graphics that early education advocates can include in presentations to public officials.

EdSource Today sat down with Poulain and Adleman in their San Francisco office to talk about their project. The excerpted conversation is below, or read the complete transcript.

EdSource: What made you think that there was enough material about the early years for six episodes?

Larry Adelman: There’s enough material here for dozens of episodes and that’s been our biggest problem: trying to boil it down in a way that we don’t oversimplify the material.

One of the things that interests us the most, or certainly interests me, is why is it that we always are so quick to blame parents for the problems of their children? We talk about negligent parents, but why do we never talk about negligent society? How did the structures that our society create the neighborhoods, the workplaces, the services, our public policies, our economic and social arrangements? And how do those nested social ecologies actually drip down and affect the opportunities for favorable development trajectories for our children? That’s what we never talk about in this country.

EdSource: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found?

Adelman: The United States is such an outlier. We are the only country in the rich world that does not mandate, by (federal) law, paid parental leave. We are the only country that doesn’t guarantee universal health care for everybody. Most rich countries provide quality early care in preschool for their kids. We don’t.

EdSource: Rachel, if you want people to come away with one thing from this series, what is the new thought you’d want people to have?

Rachel Poulain: We can do it differently. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have a society where having kids isn’t something that is incredibly hard work, but where you can feel like, “Oh, I can do this because I will have the time, I will have the money, I will have the resources. I will have a quality, affordable child care.” We can be a society where saying that you have to care for your child isn’t making a choice between your career and your family and where we really value the time that we can spend with our kids and with our families. By changing the kinds of conversations that we have, we can really change the ways that we as a nation allocate our resources.

EdSource: It sounds like you’re both talking about affordable child care for middle class families, not just targeted child care for the lowest income families.

Poulain: Absolutely. Some people pay more in child care than they do on their mortgage. That’s not right. We shouldn’t have to make those kinds of decisions. So it’s absolutely for folks who are in lower classes, but also the middle class, because we do see that everyone is being squeezed.

When we look at the Department of Defense, they’re already doing it differently. They provide child care centers that are affordable, are great quality. That means when the servicemen and women go away to do their jobs, they know that their kids are well taken care of, that they have quality education, quality care, and they’re in an environment where they’re being looked after.

Adelman: It’s not just a question of early care, as important as that is. Really what we’re looking at is the larger environment in which kids are growing up. Take paid sick leave. Why is it that something like 44 percent of private sector employees in America have no paid sick leave? For most private sector employees, if you get sick you face a choice: You can either stay home and lose a day’s pay, or go to work sick. Let alone if your kid gets sick. And there are problems with housing (and wages). The median wage for childcare workers is $9.28 an hour. That’s a little over $19,000 a year. That’s less than a poverty-level wage for a family of four. So the people we’re entrusting with our own children – we’re not paying them enough to take care of their kids. This doesn’t make any sense. Why are all our resources in this country going disproportionately to the 1 percent or the top 10 percent? And why are we investing so little in our own future?

The question we have to ask ourselves as a nation is why are we not doing this? Even third-world countries like China and Brazil are beginning to invest in their children. Why not us?

EdSource: There’s also the issue of women, and men, being able to afford to stay in the work place when their children are younger. How is that affected by quality early care?

Poulain: We’re not really embracing having kids and having families.

Why not be able to take the first year off and to know your job is guaranteed? It’s in the best interest of the workplace because it means the kind of dedication that we want to see, and it’s in the interest of the mother, because coming back to work before you’re ready does not make a very focused person.

EdSource: Obama has presented a new idea of universal preschool for 4-year-olds. How likely do you think that actually is to pass, and do you think there’s a chance of people getting behind it?

Adelman: I don’t know. I’m only hopeful. I think it’s a great start. We accept that there is government money spent for K-12. It’s the natural next step to expand universal education downward.

EdSource: There are a lot of policies that you’ve talked about: workplace policies, policies around providing free care, home visiting policies. Is there any one that stands out?

Adelman: There’s no one simple solution. We need to ask ourselves: What type of a nation are we? What do we value? What do we prioritize? Where do we want to put our money and our resources? Do we want to go ahead and put it into Larry Ellison’s yachts? Do we want to put it into hedge funds, billions of dollars for hedge fund managers? … Or do we want to invest this money into creating rich environments for our young children? That’s probably the most important question that any nation can ask.

EdSource: Rachel, you said earlier that you didn’t want people to just watch this series and then be done. What is it you want people to go and do?

Poulain: We’re creating “The Raising of America” in the context of a national public engagement campaign. The idea here is to really work with other organizations. We have over 100 organizations who’ve joined on as partners. Whether they organize internal screenings with staff or with existing allies or use parts of the series to build new partnerships or go out into the community and do community briefings or community screenings, they’ll be using it as a policy tool.

Adelman: You know, out of 29 rich nations, according to the most recent U.N. Development Report, child well-being in the United States came in 26th. We beat Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. The question is why? Why can’t we do better?

This is a film to start a conversation. The responsibility for raising our children is a mutual obligation that we all have. Not just because of moral grounds, but because our nation – the future health, safety, education, prosperity and equity of our nation – is really tied to the start that we give our kids.

This story appears courtesy of Ed Source. Reproduction is not permitted.

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