Childhood-related policy hopes for 2021

by Jamie Davies O’Leary, associate director of policy and Caitlin Lennon, communications & policy specialist

The new year offers a moment to reflect on the past year as well as the one that lays ahead. Last year we made predictions for 2020, and this year we are absolutely not going to do that because if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that a complete upheaval of the world can’t be predicted. (Well, not entirely.)

Instead, we’re going to outline themes or developments related to early childhood policy that we invite you to pay attention to, alongside some very gentle hopes on this front. (We don’t want to jinx anything. Also, the art of forecasting itself is not that reliable, despite being an alluring habit, and the word “prediction” feels problematic because honestly, who could have predicted any of these things one year ago.)

Here are four things we’ll be paying attention to in 2021.


Whether we can overcome (or at least move the needle on) “scarcity thinking”

Last year at our Symposium on Children, panelist Christine Johnson-Staub (from the Center on Law and Social Policy) said something we’ve not forgotten, and that is that we (i.e., early childhood advocates) need to step away from scarcity thinking. Yes, funding early care and education is expensive. For reference, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for universal child care was estimated to cost $70 billion per year. In too many policy or advocacy circles, however, the fact that quality care and education is expensive too quickly becomes a permanent stopping point; never mind that we spend billions of dollars on the care and learning of (slightly older) children in the K-12 system, or in higher education, or that we spend extraordinary sums on national defense (including new initiatives to take place in outer space). We invest in those areas because collectively we’ve decided it’s worth it.

In 2021, we need to continue to insist that early childhood is worth the sizable investment. 2020 certainly set the stage for this, with millions of parents becoming their child’s teachers or day-time caregivers during lockdown and realizing not only how essential their teachers are, but how difficult it is to do well. The pandemic also underscored how disruptions to the child care system (closures, staff illness, changes in enrollment) can bring the entire care system to a near screeching halt, and along with it, the national economy. We hope in 2021 to see our national policy leaders prioritize this, and state leaders as well. (Though states can only do so much to fund this entirely on their own.) We also hope more advocates will be challenged in their thinking, as we have been, to get more tenacious in questioning the notion that adequate funding is impossible, that we can’t pay early childhood teachers a living wage, or that families should keep bearing the costs of systemic failures.

Watch for:

  • Congressional action to provide relieffor the child care industry
  • President Joe Biden’s proposal for care and early learning
  • DeWine’s executive budget, which will be released in a month or two, and state investments in Ohio’s children
  • State policy proposals or changes related to lead mitigation, gun control, education, health care, foster care, and areas with a direct impact on children’s health and well-being
  • Innovative ways that states or localities are financing early childhood programs


Changes to schooling delivery and learning priorities

Let me start by saying that I really dislike the phrase, “don’t let a good opportunity go to waste.” While I understand the tendency to search for silver linings during crisis and don’t begrudge anyone for doing it, I’m too close to this issue and I can’t quite get myself to the silver-lining place. Even so, there is much to be curious about with regards to how schooling itself may shift in the coming year.

Most obviously, last year the delivery of teaching itself was radically altered, rapidly, and for a huge swath of children. Last spring and fall, millions of families were forced in some version of hybrid schoolingonline schooling, or homeschooling. These domains were previously ones opted into by a relative few. Data from the past year show that increasing numbers of children joined online schools outside of their home district, and more families decided to homeschool. As vaccines are distributed and schools return to a closer approximation of “normal” schooling, it will be interesting to see whether families still prefer diverse delivery methods. (Thus far, many of these decisions tend to occur along lines of race and class, raising new questions about equity.) We also wonder if last year’s disruptions will force much-needed improvements to educational technology, Wifi access, and our views regarding whether these should be free and publicly provided.

Another development that will continue to play out this year is the urgent mental health and holistic needs facing children and families. As Columbus City Schools Superintendent Dr. Talisa Dixon noted, we all need to remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the ways in which COVID-19 forced us to reckon with the fact that basic safety and wellness is a prerequisite for learning. Social emotional health is at the very forefront of what schools (and early education providers) are grappling with, and it will need to be supported and funding accordingly.

Finally, we hope that last year’s disruptions cause us to reevaluate precisely what it is we expect our children to be learning, and why. Crises are inflection points that force us to pause and consider what truly matters; by their nature, they require triage. At a macro-schooling level, triage meant a reduced emphasis on testing and accountability, various modifications for schools, extra funding, and a focus on urgent supports for children and families, including how to meet basic needs like hunger or Wifi access. On a micro level (personal/family/community), perhaps this manifested as difficult conversations about equity or about our participation in systems that don’t work well for everyone. While news headlines frequently asked about the impact of learning losses in reading and math, it was a year that also forced questions like: Why haven’t we done a better job prioritizing social justice curriculum? How do we educate more Americans about the history (and current reality) of race and racism? Is the education we’re providing to children – in schools and in our own homes – equipping them to care about the good of the whole, or to make sacrifices for their fellow human? Are our young people media literate? Can they delay gratitude when it means keeping others safe? Do they believe scientists? Last year placed a painful, glaring spotlight on the ways in which we’ve failed, civically. Hopefully in 2021, we’ll begin taking serious steps to rectify that.

Watch for:

  • New adaptations and innovations in early care and K-12 schooling to meet the needsof families and children
  • Effective methods for engaging families, especially those who have been historically hard-to-reach by schools and service delivery systems
  • Newly developed apps or virtual learning resources
  • Emerging research questions borne out of 2020’s learning losses, especially for those children missing preschool or kindergarten, as well as targeted interventions to address what are sure to be huge lapses in skill development and school readiness
  • A realization (hopefully) that distinctions between early care and education, and “formal” learning starting in kindergarten, are artificial, unhelpful, and not based in the science of human learning


The role of stress

You probably already know this, but the last year has been, uh, stressful. In some ways the pandemic and its barriers – i.e., parents being forced to juggle work and child care, families lacking support systems, visceral fear about one’s health, job loss and unemployment – simply forced more Americans to face the harsh realities that the working poor, and especially Black Americans, have always had to grapple with.

It’s also become clear(er) that the public safety nets provided by other countries and glaringly absent in the U.S. could have, and still can, buffer the effects of increasingly common social and financial stressors. With respect to child care, working families in the U.S. have always been waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Anyone with children and working one (or two or more) jobs, whose health care access is tied to job status, or who lacks paid family leave, paid sick time, or flexible workplace policies, has learned the stressful art of scrambling to cover care due when illness occurs. (And that’s not even addressing the patchwork required to cover summer care, after school care, or other nontraditional hours.) Raising children is an increasingly precarious position to find oneself in, and stress itself – be it financial, health, mental health – they’re all intertwined! – needs to be a more prominent topic in policy circles. This is because parental stress impacts children negatively. (Read more about this in the Crane Center’s white paper about COVID-19’s impact on central Ohio families, or in this op-ed by Dr. Laura Justice.)

Childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are increasingly being discussed and understood in mainstream discourse; they are no longer the domain of child psychologists or researchers alone. This is by sheer necessity; childhood stress/trauma is its own pandemic. More teachers, caregivers, social workers, community leaders (and well, anyone living in a society exposed to gun violence, wildfires, civil unrest, and climate collapse) will need training in or at least a better understanding of the impact of trauma on young bodies and minds.

Watch for:

  • Research agendas that include the impact of toxic stress on children, families, and communities
  • Model policies (from local, state, federal, or even international) that focus on systems and supports for families in ways that mitigate the nefarious impact of stress


Race and racism

Last, but certainly not least, as we step into 2021 there is an urgent need to combat racism and its insidious impacts on young children, especially Black children.

Last year’s Symposium on Children hosted by Crane centered on Anti-Bias and Anti-Racism in Early Childhood Education. As part of a great lineup of speakers, Ohio State Representative Stephanie Howse, President of Ohio’s Legislative Black Caucus, offered a profound yet simple data point: Ohio did not have its first Black female in the state House of Representatives until 1978That’s 175 years after statehood. The first Black female to serve in the Ohio Senate was elected in 1994. These historical facts reminded us and no doubt many others, that the denial of access and representation for Black people is not some ancient past. It is our immediate history (and current reality), and sadly too many of us don’t know enough about our own history. That is deeply problematic.

Of course, self-study is not enough. We hope in 2021 to see increased responsibility among researchers, policy makers, teachers, parents/caregivers, to interweave concrete anti-racism practices within their core day-to-day work and a recognition of racism’s impact from the first day of birth (or actually well before, as in the case of outcomes for pregnant mothers).

Watch for:

  • Whether Ohio passes a resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis (or, whether other local entities do, as Columbus has)
  • Action-oriented updates from companies, governments, and communities who have committed to anti-racism
  • Policies in states or localities that attempt to rectify and address racism, such as overturning racist policies or implementing reparations, from which others might learn
  • Data that may indicate progress (or lack thereof) on Ohio’s Black infant and maternal mortality rate, as well as disproportionately in other key areas related to life and quality of life (health, housing, education)

As we enter 2021, that’s what is on our mind. What about yours?

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