Polls indicate early childhood education is unifying political issue

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A divided Congress should not influence lawmakers’ ability to pass meaningful legislation supporting high-quality early childhood education, according to a new bipartisan poll commissioned by the First Five Years Fund. The federal advocacy organization’s sixth year of national polling, conducted in the days following the 2018 midterm elections, shows that both Democratic and Republican voters expect members of Congress to work together to break partisan gridlock and get things done – and that investment in early childhood education has strong support across parties.

The national FFYF polling results align with findings from an Idaho poll released last year. That survey, conducted in 2017 by the public opinion research firm Moore Information for the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, found that Idaho voters and parents of young children believe the early years of life are important in a child’s brain development and that the state should be doing more to support early learning opportunities.

As Idaho enters a Legislative session under new Gov. Brad Little, who has spotlighted education as his top priority, these discussions are increasingly important. Idaho remains one of only a handful of states that does not currently invest in public preschool options for families. Less than half of Idaho children begin kindergarten with grade-level reading skills, and many never catch up with their classmates.

“Early education should be a safe issue for policymakers,” said Idaho AEYC Executive Director Beth Oppenheimer. “Idaho voters and parents want our children to start school prepared to thrive, and research shows that children with access to quality preschool are more likely to excel through their school years and beyond. Focusing on the early years is a vital part of addressing Idaho education as a whole.”

Here’s a look at key findings from both polls: 

Importance of early years: Voters say there are many benefits to children attending high-quality education, according to the FFYF poll. In addition to academic success throughout a child’s school years and the development of important social skills such as self-confidence and self-discipline, a majority agreed that high-quality early education can help break the cycle of poverty, boost long-term economic outlook by ensuring highly-skilled future workers, and enable mothers to start or continue their careers.

The Idaho AEYC poll found that 70 percent of voters believe ages 0 to 5 are the most important time for a child’s brain development. Eighty-five percent of voters and 91 percent of parents with children 5 or younger believe access to quality, affordable preschool options for Idaho families enhances children’s educational performance in elementary school.

Affordability and quality: The FFYF poll found that voters of all income levels acknowledge a critical lack of quality, affordable early childhood education opportunities. Only 15 percent of voters say most or all local programs available to lower- and middle-income families are high-quality and affordable.

The Idaho AEYC poll similarly highlighted widespread concerns about the quality and affordability of preschool programs. Only 22 percent of voters surveyed rate the quality of preschool opportunities in Idaho for children ages 3 to 5 years old as excellent or above average, while 32 percent say these opportunities are only average and 24 percent say they are below average or poor. Nearly half of Idaho voters and 55 percent of parents deem preschool programs either very or somewhat unaffordable. In fact, 25 percent of parents who don’t have their young children in preschool say it’s because they can’t afford it.

Kindergarten readiness: Two-thirds of American voters say we need to do more to ensure children are better prepared when they start kindergarten, according to the FFYF poll. That holds true in Idaho as well: The Idaho AEYC poll found that 69 percent of voters and parents believe the state should be doing more to ensure that Idaho children begin kindergarten with the knowledge and skills they need to do their best in school. Only 25 percent believe that Idaho’s preschool-age children are prepared for kindergarten.

Funding support: Republicans, Democrats and independents all support proposals that help more families access high-quality early learning and child care opportunities. The following proposals each received support from at least 80 percent of those polled:

  • Tax incentives to businesses that provide or help employees afford quality early childhood education programs.

  • Increased federal funding to states so they can create or build on their own programs to directly help low-income children.

  • Increased child care tax credit to help parents afford quality child care and early education programs.

  • More funding to Head Start and Early Head Start.

The Idaho AEYC poll found strong support for state investment in preschool – 80 percent of parents and 76 percent of voters.

The FFYF research concludes that there’s no risk for a member of Congress to support early childhood education – in fact, voters are eight times more likely to have a favorable opinion of those who do. One in four voters say early childhood education is a primary factor in deciding whether to support an elected official. Also, 84 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of independents want to see increased funding for early childhood education even if it means the Trump administration can take credit for helping children and families.

“As the new Congress gets underway, lawmakers should look to early childhood education as an issue where they can cut through the partisan divide and accomplish something meaningful on behalf of their constituents,” said First Five Years Fund Executive Director Sarah Rittling. “Early childhood education isn’t just smart policy – it’s also smart politics.”