Foundations’ Efforts to Educate the Very Young Make Headway

August 11, 2014
By Libby Sander

As President Obama urged Congress to spend more on preschool programs for 4-year-olds during his State of the Union address in January, Barbara Reisman’s cellphone buzzed with congratulatory text messages from her kids.

The president’s remarks were evidence that a cause she has advocated for since the 1980s—first as a community organizer and now as executive director of the Schumann Fund for New Jersey—has come a long way.

“There’s pretty strong evidence that if you really want to close the achievement gap,” Ms. Reisman says, “investing early gives you the biggest return.”

Mr. Obama isn’t the only politician to embrace that message: Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York has made universal pre-kindergarten programs a central focus of his new administration. And this year alone, lawmakers in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico introduced more than 600 bills addressing early education and care for young children, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Behind the surge of interest is a decades-long push by foundations and donors. They have provided support for early-childhood service providers to test new approaches and increase access for at-risk children. They’ve funneled money into research that has since become the backbone of national advocacy campaigns.

And now, realizing that their dollars alone aren’t enough, they have launched a sustained, bipartisan quest to persuade Congress and state legislatures to expand public funding for high-quality pre-kindergarten programs. By zeroing in on different elements of the early-childhood agenda, philanthropy’s role has been “catalytic,” says Joan Lombardi, an expert in child and family policy who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “You can see the philanthropic efforts bearing fruit.”

One of the most visible efforts is in Tulsa, Okla., where the George Kaiser Family Foundation spends about $20-million each year on early-childhood programming for about 2,000 children. At the heart of that effort are three Educare centers that operate in partnership with the foundation, Tulsa Public Schools, the University of Oklahoma, and the state Department of Human Services. The Educare Learning Network, which began in 2003, has sites in more than a dozen other states and has grown into a model for high-quality education for very young children.

But its supporters have also come to realize that as effective as it is, the approach is expensive—and it doesn’t reach all children. And so philanthropists find themselves confronting a question, says Ken Levit, executive director of the Kaiser Family Foundation: “How do we make investments today that will lead to larger public investments in the future?”

‘Quiet Crisis’

The recent groundswell of support has its roots in philanthropic interest that took off in the early 1990s.

In 1993, a group of national grant makers and smaller community and family foundations formed the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative to take a strategic approach. The following year, in a report titled “Starting Points,” the Carnegie Corporation of New York issued key recommendations to address the “quiet crisis” facing children and their parents. Citing research on the impact of environments on the rapidly developing brains of children under age 3, Carnegie called for national investment in child care.

By 2000, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, with support from the Irving Harris Foundation, had created the first Educare school in Chicago, laying the groundwork for what would soon become a national network of learning centers for very young children. The Pew Charitable Trusts, meanwhile, launched a decade-long campaign in 2001 calling for high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten programs. By 2003, Educare had gone national, with support from several philanthropies, including the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Philanthropic support has also retained its community-based focus. A sampling of grants in 2013 and 2014 reflects the diversity of approaches:

• $500,000 from the McCormick Foundation to National Louis University in Illinois for the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership, which focuses on the professional development of those who work in early-childhood education.
• $189,000 from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation to engage local businesses in early-childhood education.
• $350,000 from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to Kalamazoo County Ready 4s, which aims to place all 4-year-olds in that county in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs.

New Ideas and Tactics

“The biggest role of philanthropy in early-childhood education is that background support,” says Carla Thompson, vice president for program strategy at the Kellogg Foundation. In April, Kellogg awarded nearly $14-million in grants to 30 organizations in 18 states and the District of Columbia to engage families in enhancing young children’s learning. Grant makers, Ms. Thompson says, can give programs and organizations the resources they need to flex their muscles around new ideas and innovative tactics. In doing so, she adds, they are “the glue that holds it all together.”

But even the most generous philanthropic efforts can do only so much. The government remains the dominant source of education funding by far, and philanthropists have invested heavily in state and federal advocacy. For instance, the First Five Years Fund, formed in 2007 by seven investors, works to persuade Congress to increase investment in early-learning efforts for low-income children. Today, says Kris Perry, the organization’s executive director, “there’s a much bigger emphasis on policy change.”

Calls for greater investment in early-childhood education now come from all corners: business leaders, law-enforcement officials, and pediatricians. Mission: Readiness, an organization of 450 retired generals and admirals concerned that today’s youths are ill-suited for military service, advocates for greater investment in children. At the top of their list is high-quality early-childhood education. Ms. Reisman calls the new cast of characters “unexpected messengers.”

What’s Next

Although government support for early-childhood education programs varies widely, state lawmakers appear to have responded to philanthropy’s prodding. To date, 34 states have passed more than 100 laws that address quality, access, and funding in early-childhood education, and all but a handful of states now offer preschool for 4-year-olds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California, for instance, adopted nonbinding legislation in June that directs state officials to increase the number of high-quality preschool programs. Also this year, Missouri passed a law requiring, among other things, that state officials establish a system to assess the quality of child-care providers.

Still, nonprofit leaders find themselves wondering: How do we reach more children? How do we persuade lawmakers that robust funding is key?

Ms. Perry says she thinks the new faces will help. “More and more, I think they will carry these messages,” she says. “You need people to connect the dots at the Rotary meeting and the school-board meeting.”

But she’s also noticed that funders are impatient for a strong show of support from Washington. “They’ve been at it for 10 years or more,” she says. “I think they believe the problem isn’t getting smaller, it’s getting bigger, and we’re missing a generation of kids.”

Jessie Rasmussen, president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, has been at it for even longer than that. She began teaching in a Head Start program when the federal program started 50 years ago, and served as a state senator and human-services director in Nebraska and Iowa before moving to the fund.

What starts locally, she says, can mature into a broader approach as funders collaborate on how to have a greater impact. A measure of their success will be whether state and federal lawmakers pitch in, Rasmussen says. “We can’t be a substitute for what should be a public investment in the well-being of children.”

A Sample of Big Players in Early-Childhood Education

$500-million since 2004
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Battle Creek, Mich.
Kellogg aims to promote a sense of shared responsibility among teachers, principals, caregivers, and parents. For example, the foundation held a symposium in Washington last month to highlight the role of parents in ensuring that their young children receive a high-quality education.

$180-million since 2005
Buffett Early Childhood Fund
Omaha, Neb.
Established in 2005, the fund provides money for early-childhood education in the Educare Learning Network. It also supports organizations working to change federal and state policy, like the First Five Years Fund and the Alliance for Early Success. Additional grantees include the Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child and Nobel laureate James Heckman at the University of Chicago.

$178-million since 2004
George Kaiser Family Foundation
Tulsa, Okla.
Since its inception in 1999, the foundation has made early-childhood education a priority, with a particular emphasis on children under age 3. The foundation concentrates its efforts locally: It collaborates with the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa and Tulsa Community College to create a pipeline of early-childhood professionals who are trained to work with infants and toddlers.

$81.8-million since 2004
Irving Harris Foundation
Chicago, Ill.
The Ounce of Prevention Fund, which Irving Harris founded in 1982 with state support, has been a major partner in developing and advancing high-quality programs for children under 5. One of those programs is Educare, which began in Chicago in 2000 and three years later became a national network.