5 predictions for early childhood policy in 2020

Last month we rounded up what we thought were the best 9 policy-related trends from 2019. Now, here are five predictions for the coming year from where we sit at our cross-section of early childhood research and policy.

1) Children’s issues will remain central in state policy discussions.  

Last year ushered in new investments for Ohio children as well as policy change related to lead mitigationhome visitingfoster care, and student wellness, among other areas. 2020 may see a slowdown in child-focused policy change enacted. This is to be expected in an off-budget, mid-biennial year, one that also includes spring primary challenges and a presidential election. However, expect the broad emphasis on children to continue, with this year serving as a planning year for what’s to be unveiled in Gov. DeWine’s next biennial state budget. There may also be policy formulation by the Ohio Legislative Children’s Caucus, a bipartisan group committed to advancing children’s policy change that was reinvigorated last year. 

We’re curious to see what’s ahead for Ohio’s eligibility threshold for publicly funded childcare. Early on, Gov. DeWine promised to move the eligibility window from 130% to 150% of the federal poverty level, but opted not to do so in the last budget, instead focusing on quality efforts. Children’s health coverage (which has taken an alarming dive recently) will also be a big topic of discussion, and it will be interesting to see how districts spend brand-new student wellness funds and address ongoing trauma or drug exposure. 

On the K-12 education policy front, lawmakers will continue to grapple with the state’s school funding formuladistrict improvement (a nicer way of describing how the state will manage the state takeover/academic distress commission process), and report cards. Early discussions about school funding changes included a mention of more targeted pre-K funding and early childhood advocates should insist that this be part of the school funding discussion this yearA case could be made that investments in early learning are a sensible part of building the infrastructure necessary for school improvement.  

2) The state’s quality deadline for childcare providers will shed light on Ohio’s childcare landscape.  

On July 1, 2020, Ohio childcare providers will face the long-awaited and much-discussed Step Up to Quality deadline. The mandate was legislated in 2012 and set timelines for when providers who receive state funds must apply for and gain entry to the state’s quality improvement system (Step Up). Those who fail to gain entry into the system will lose those funds come July, though recent estimates here in central Ohio show that persistent efforts by our county’s Job and Family Services and other advocates have been paying off. (As of November 2019, 70% of area central Ohio providers are rated, while another 16% have either applied or are actively in the process of doing so.) 

A recent Crane white paper shed light on providers’ plans statewide: It found that 69% of surveyed providers were already planning to apply or have applied to be quality-rated. While the paper was based on a small sample of survey respondents (and thus shouldn’t be generalized across the state), it may offer a window of insight and optimism: The number of publicly funded childcare slots that are lost may be fewer than what folks initially feared. 

No matter what the final Step Up enrollment numbers show in July, it will be a milestone. The deadline represents an ultimatum, of sorts, that uniquely faces providers of our state’s most at-risk babies and children. But it may also offer an opportunity for providers to rise to the challenge, and to galvanize around communicating to policy leaders how onerous the process is and how reimbursement rates may need to increase to reflect the amount of work it takes. No system is perfect, and if there are ways to streamline or improve Step Up to Quality, the latter half of the year will be the time to start discussing that. 

The deadline is not an end-point unto itself but the first of many benchmarks on the state’s path to how it regulates and hopes to improve early care and education quality. Providers can’t linger at one star; they’ve got until 2025 to earn a three-star rating. This year’s deadline and the impact on providers will point to a need for ongoing information regarding childcare access and quality statewide – data that should be readily available, public, and in one place to show whether communities around the state are experiencing care “deserts.” (Some of this exists county-by-county or in cities, but to the best of our knowledge doesn’t exist for the state in a readily accessible way.) 

3) More Ohio cities will aim for pre-K expansion.  

Toledo is the latest Buckeye city with sights set on preschool expansion, and plans for this could be coming soon. Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz campaigned in 2017 on a promise of universal preschool, and has made steps toward that goal. Last year, an outside firm hired by the city estimated that free preschool for all four-year-olds could be achieved with $7 million (suggested to come from a local ballot initiative as well as private philanthropy). 

If Toledo could make a ballot initiative happen, it would join the ranks of Cincinnati and Dayton whose pre-K efforts were made possible through local tax-raising. (Meanwhile, public/private partnership funds support Pre4Cle in Cleveland, while Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther has use city funds to invest in Early Start Columbus.) In Akron, an area foundation has funded a new two-year initiative aimed at helping develop and train early childhood teachers at 24 high-need centers across the city. (Read more about Akron’s Supporting Teachers and Ready Students [STARS] here and here.)  

Kindergarten readiness data point to a need for better quality early learning opportunities. Statewide, only four in ten incoming kindergarteners demonstrated “readiness” (the highest level on the state Kindergarten Readiness Assessment); for Black students, that figure is 26% (2018-19). In districts serving high numbers of low-income children, rates of readiness are worryingly low. Yet cities’ preschool initiatives do appear to be making a dent in local kindergarten readiness numbers 

As more cities look to lead on preschool, it’s worth remembering that not every community can achieve – or sustain – preschool expansion on their own dime, especially the type of year-round, full- or extended-day care that working families need. Funding is notoriously complex, with programs layering funding (or “braiding”) from a variety of federal, state, and local sources, and often with varying eligibility requirements attached to each. Sometimes there’s a will, but not (yet) a way. \

4) Presidential candidates will continue talking about child care costs and other family policies. 

The cost of childcare has recently received a larger-than-normal national spotlight, both in media as well as among presidential candidates. This is sure to continue in an election year, though will likely get eclipsed at some point by other policy issues (foreign policy and the economy come to mind).  

The fact that childcare has made its way to the national stage is impressive in its own right. While states and localities can lead in their own ways on early childhood policy, the money really does need to come from somewhere. Folks are ready to hear big, bold ideas from national leaders. Elizabeth Warren first proposed universal child care in early 2019, and many other Democratic candidates quickly followed suit (though most lacked details on how they planned to achieve it). Also on the federal docket are several pieces of legislation calling for more robust investments in the areas of early care and education, teacher and leader development, and childcare for student-parents 

In 2020, candidates will be pushed to elaborate on their policy ideas and to get more specific on solutions to pressing problems like the costs of childcare or the lack of parental leave, if they haven’t already. And of course, campaign promises aren’t enough to guarantee change – especially with a divided Congress. But momentum has to start somewhere. And “issue framing” – which helps the general public to begin viewing a key issue in a new light (say, the fact that families of nearly every income bracket struggle to afford child care) – is a key part of the change process. If national political discussions can move – and keep – these issues at the top of people’s minds, it will ease the way for state and local efforts. 

5) The need for good data will be as important as ever. 

This is true every year, but we predict that 2020 will be a data-centric year for several reasons. First, there are existing programs in Ohio where more data is clearly warranted, and policy leaders are talking about it. For example, when Gov. DeWine moved to expand home visiting last year, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that little data had been collected to show whether those home visits were working. The governor and his team are leading the way toward better data storage and coordination across state agencies, as evidenced by the new InnovateOhio platform (created via executive order). 

In the landscape of early learning, we talk often about the need for better data sharing and infrastructure. The fact that the 40,000+ Ohio children enrolled in federal Head Start programs don’t receive a unique state student identifier that follows them to kindergarten (in the same manner that other publicly funded children do) really limits our ability to track early learning efforts and evaluate impact. So does that fact that when children leave preschool, their data doesn’t track back to the early childhood teachers and administrators who may want to know their later kindergarten readiness or reading scores in order to examine their own program effectiveness. Early learning and K-12 are separately governed systems, and while children may merely cross the street from their old preschool to a new kindergarten, there is no infrastructure in place to encourage, incentivize, or require sharing of information across the birth to elementary spectrum of learning. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

2020 is also the year of the U.S. Census. Young children have been historically undercounted, which affects funding allocations for vital services as well congressional representation. Lots of great folks in Ohio have coalesced around efforts to advocate for a thorough Census count. You might also hear about efforts to oppose the U.S. Department of Education’s plans to scrap preschool questions (among others) in the federal Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) this year. 

Finally, as leaders consider investing in programs and policies to support children, expect them to want to know about the long-term “pay off.” Toward this end, researchers should get louder about the limits of attempts to quantify whether preschool “works.” They should issue clear guidance and interpretation for policy makers on research topics with immediate policy implications, likpreschool fadeout, the value of early childhood teacher credentials, or best practices in reading instruction for young readers. The need for good data is one area where researchers and policy makers have an enduring shared interest, so it makes sense to work together on this.