Investing in the First Three Years of Life Can Greatly Impact School Success

Research has proven that high-quality early childhood programs – particularly those targeted to children at risk for poor outcomes – can provide a considerable return on investment in terms of economic gains and educational outcomes.

Neural connections formed during a child’s first three years of life are vital for healthy brain development and form the foundation for future learning. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Mayor Betsy Hodges. It is the second post in a series about the Mayors’ Education Task Force.

It is incumbent upon us as city leaders to create cities that are focused on the future, not just the present. All cities will face similar challenges down the road, from workforce shortages to racial achievement gaps; we must be willing to address those challenges today by forming the next generation of citizens. That means reaching children as early as possible.

In the city of Minneapolis, I have formed the Cradle to K Cabinet to develop and implement a plan of action that makes very young children and their families a priority. Here’s why: research consistently demonstrates that the first three years of life are critical to children’s healthy growth and development. In every second of those first three years, more than 700 new neural connections are formed. These connections are vital for healthy brain development and form the foundation for future learning.

Infant brains are wired to absorb their environment, and positive early experiences in safe, supportive, nurturing environments facilitate healthy development. During this period of early growth and development it is vital that infants and very young children receive positive stimulation from a caring parent or adult that will allow them to grow and thrive.

Unfortunately, not all children receive such positive stimulation; far too many are exposed to toxic and stressful environments that impede their development. As a result, disparities and inequities occur early, and gaps in learning and development widen over time.

Mayor Hodges’ Cradle to K Cabinet consists of multi-sector experts, leaders, and parents working to prevent disparities by aligning policies, closing gaps, and increasing resources where needed to ensure that all Minneapolis children have a healthy start, are stably housed, and have continuous access to high-quality, child-development-centered child care and early education. (City of Minneapolis)

In 2013, Stanford University researcher Anne Fernald found that, by the time a child is two years old, there is already a six-month gap in language comprehension. This means that too many children are already behind by the time they enter school. Such an early learning gap is the strongest predictor of the persistent achievement gap in educational attainment.

Quality early education programs can mitigate these risks. Investments during formative years will ensure that all children get the best possible start to early learning and future school success.

Minnesota economist Art Rolnick’ s substantive research on, and advocacy for, investments in high-quality early childhood programs – particularly those targeted to children at risk for poor outcomes – has proven that they can provide a considerable societal return on investment in terms of economic gains and educational outcomes. For every dollar invested in high-quality early care and education programs, up to $13.00 in future costs are returned. Access to quality early care and education programs helps parents fulfill their parental responsibilities and allows them to go to work and provide for their children. Children that graduate from these programs have yielded benefits in academic achievement, behavior, educational progression and attainment.

I continue to advocate for the necessary federal and state resources that support the healthy development of young children. Federal programs and initiatives like the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Head Start/Early Head Start, Community (or Federally Qualified) Health Centers, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and Community Development Block Grants are just a few of the federal investments that support this critical need. The loss or significant reduction of these programs would impact the success of our future generations.

City leaders like ourselves must foster early learning and allow children and families to have access to high-quality, accessible early education programs and learning environments that are responsive to the needs of families and ensure that children are on a path to early learning and lifelong success.

For specific information on how you can invest in early childhood education, read NLC’s Early Childhood Learning: Building Blocks for Success and Educational Alignment Framework for Young Children.

About the author: Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges took office in 2014 after spending eight years on the Minneapolis City Council.

Forecasting the Role of Cities in Education

Both cities and the federal government want great schools because they help create a strong workforce, boosting the economy at a local and national level – but the legal and fiscal powers of both levels of government are limited, and the policies of the new administration will likely complicate this dynamic even more.



In the first installment of this series, we looked at the basics of federalism and why it matters to cities. Part two of the series focused on how one policy – affordable housing assistance – has changed with the interpretation of federalism, and what that means for cities today. In this post, we examine federalism in the context of the American educational system.

The expectation that government should provide accessible, quality education for all has become deeply engrained in the American psyche. This responsibility, however, falls squarely on the shoulders of local governments. Quality education is most often a local responsibility, increasingly paid for at the state level, and managed by policies set at the national level. More specifically, states and local school districts have always made the critical decisions about education, from who should teach to what should be taught. The role of the federal government has been more limited; education policy has long flowed from the bottom up, with the federal government often expanding innovative local policies nationally. For these reasons, education presents an interesting look at federalism.

History of National Education Policy

While the role of the federal government in education has been muted, its level of involvement has steadily increased over the last sixty years. Federal interest in schools was triggered by the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 and the fear that American education was falling behind on a global scale. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, delivering resources to poor urban and rural schools. Later in the 1960s and into the 1970s, the federal government worked to combat de facto segregation in public schools. The Department of Education became its own cabinet-level department in the Carter administration, only to see its budget severely reduced during Reagan’s tenure.

Similar to other policies, education policy followed the trend of heightened national importance during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, with the focus shifting back to the states during the Reagan administration. However, these federal trends coupled with changes at the state level to constrain public school budgets. Funding for education, which has typically been tied to property tax revenues, started to come under threat in 1978 when California was the first state to pass a limit on local tax collection. In 1979, state spending overtook local spending as the largest source of education funding, in effect limiting local autonomy.

Today, the federal government contributes between 8 and 10 percent of the public education budget. This amounts to $55 billion annually as of FY 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Much of this funding is discretionary, which means that Congress sets the amount annually through the appropriations process.

The most recent era of federalism, while hard to define, has largely focused on accountability and performance – doing more with less money. No policy area exemplifies this better than education, and no particular legislation better than the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. Enacted at the outset of the George W. Bush administration, NCLB was built on the premise that standards should be equalized across states so that a school’s performance could be accurately measured. These priorities continued during the Obama administration with the Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that adopted common standards and broadened performance metrics.

In the Trump administration, the Department of Education will be led by Betsy DeVos. Secretary DeVos has been an advocate for school choice, meaning the privatization of education through school voucher programs and the expansion of charter schools. It is likely she will bring her views on education reform to the Department.

Because of recent reforms to federal education funding, local governments and school districts are under pressure to ensure schools are performing adequately or they risk losing critical funding to privatization. If Vice President Mike Pence’s tenure as Indiana governor is any indication, the Administration will likely move to expand charters and voucher programs. When the vice president was governor, Indiana shifted millions of dollars shifted away from public schools, and more children from middle-income families received vouchers to attend private schools.

Steps Cities Can Take Moving Forward

While education policy is administered at the local level, city governments often do not have direct oversight of their public schools. In some municipalities, school boards are jointly appointed by the mayor, city councilors, and/or the governor. In contrast, many school districts are independent special-purpose governments with leadership that is elected rather than appointed by city officials. In both of these scenarios, the policies of the new administration will likely add to the complexity of local-federal relationships in the education arena even more.

However, whether or not cities are directly responsible for their public schools, local governments can still lead (or expand) educational programs. Many cities offer programs during out-of-school times, either in the evenings or during the summer. These programs enrich the education experience, prepare students for specific careers, or help close the racial achievement gap.

Cities can also use data to improve their school systems. In the City of Nashville, for example, a partnership between Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and the city-funded afterschool program for middle school youth, the Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA), has significantly improved students’ reading ability in just three months. This is exactly the type of partnership and focus students need, especially if they are struggling or falling behind. In another example of partnerships, NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families teamed-up with MomsRising and School Readiness Consulting to produce Strong Start for Strong Cities, an early learning resource guide for mayors, councilmembers and other municipal leaders.

Finally, local elected officials can exercise leadership to support youth education beginning with pre-school, expand alternatives for students who struggle in traditional educational settings, increase high school graduation rates, and promote college access and completion.

To learn more about what NLC is doing in this policy arena – and make your voice heard at the federal level – join us at the Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., March 11-15.

Trevor Langan 125x150About the author: Trevor Langan is the Research Associate for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities.

Local Leaders Take on Tough Issues to Support the Early Childhood Workforce

Giving proper support to the people who care for young children is really a matter of infrastructure in any city – and city leaders should treat it with that level of importance. Here are five key takeaways from the Early Childhood Workforce meeting that occurred in Washington, D.C. earlier this month.

ohort members from Kansas City discuss education at the Early Childhood Workforce Cross Site Meeting hosted by NLC. Throughout the meeting, city leaders had rich and informative discussions with one another and shared insights, best practices, and solutions to tricky challenges. (photo: NLC)

Cohort members from Kansas City discuss education at the Early Childhood Workforce Cross Site Meeting hosted by NLC. Throughout the meeting, city leaders had rich and informative discussions with one another and shared insights, best practices, and solutions to tricky challenges. (photo: NLC)

Leaders from seven cities joined the National League of Cities (NLC) in Washington, D.C. earlier this month to kick off the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families’ Cities Supporting the Early Childhood Workforce initiative. These local leaders, along with experts from NLC and its partner organizations, explored ways to support and transform the early childhood workforce in their communities, as well as the challenges they may face.

Local officials from Hartford, Connecticut; Jacksonville, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri; San Francisco; Rochester, New York; Richmond, Virginia; and Seattle engaged in rich and informative discussions with Winona Hao, program manager at the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), and Kat Kempe, senior director for professional recognition and advancement at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which are both partnering with NLC in the initiative.

Here are five key takeaways from the meeting:

  • Cities are leading the way with innovative methods of supporting the professionals that care for our cities’ youngest residents. The Jacksonville Children’s Commission coordinates a network of local agencies to provide coaching services to staff in local child care centers. In Richmond, the Office of Community Wealth Building is using a poverty reduction lens to tackle early childhood issues, which includes bringing the voices of those living in impoverished communities to the forefront of the decision-making process. These are just two of the many efforts cities are already undertaking to make sure early childhood professionals have the supports they need.
  • Low salaries for most early childhood workers is a persistent problem that must be addressed in any efforts to support this workforce. Caitlin McLean, workforce research specialist at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California at Berkeley, presented CSCEE’s robust collection of data that tracks conditions and policies for the early childhood workforce in each state. McLean shared strategies localities have used to address compensation, such as wage supplements and salary parity for pre-k teachers.
  • The early childhood workforce is infrastructure (and other tips to effectively talk about the value of the early childhood workforce). Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute, shared effective messaging strategies in communicating the importance of supporting the early childhood workforce with key policymakers and other stakeholders. Cleary explained that giving the proper supports to the people who care for young children is crucial infrastructure in any city, and we need to treat it with that level of importance. She also shared that those advocating for the early childhood workforce should closely align their work with a mayor’s strategic priorities in order to gain increased support.
  • We need to talk about the impact of early childhood trauma – not just on children, but on the early childhood workforce, too. More and more exciting efforts are being made to incorporate the impact of early childhood trauma into systems of care for young children. However, individuals who care for children haven often experienced trauma themselves. While we continue to think about trauma’s impact on young children, we must simultaneously take steps to incorporate trauma-informed care into professional development systems for the workforce.
  • Partnerships with higher education are key to deepening support for the early childhood workforce. Kim Owens, the Grow NJ Kids incentives coordinator at the New Jersey Department of Human Services, described partnerships that the state of New Jersey has with five different institutions of higher education. These partnerships allow New Jersey to jointly administer many programs that they would not be able to administer on their own, such as a statewide workforce registry and training for early education providers. Dr. Antoinette Mitchell, assistant superintendent of postsecondary and career education for the Washington, D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, told city leaders about Washington’s program that gives high school students career and technical education to move them toward credentialing as early childhood educators.

To learn more about the YEF Institute’s Cities Supporting the Early Childhood Workforce project, click here.

About the author: Alana Eichner is the Early Childhood Associate in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Unpredictable Work Schedules Can Lead to an Unstable Family Life. Here’s How Cities Can Help.

Many workers in hourly, low-wage jobs struggle to manage their lives while navigating difficult work schedules, but several cities have taken action recently to address the challenge and promote a healthier workforce.

(Getty Images)

A predictable schedule is something that many nine-to-five workers take for granted; it allows people to balance school, work, and family. Basic protections from cities can make this possible for all workers. (Getty Images)

Two days each week, Andrea R. is usually scheduled to work what her fellow employees call the “clopen” shift. She closes the doors of the large retail store where she works, gets home around midnight, prepares school lunches for her children, gets a few hours of sleep, and has to be back at work by 6 a.m. to open the store.

Her schedule changes every week, so Andrea does not know in advance which days she has to work this shift. Her employer’s policy claims that workers will know their schedules two weeks in advance – but Andrea, a single mom, often gets less than a week’s notice, making it difficult to arrange child care. Her unreliable schedule means that she must often ask family members to take care of her children, but she worries that providing such short notice strains her family relationships. Making only $9 per hour, it is often less costly for Andrea to not work a shift than to find and pay for child care. “If I could rely on a reasonable set of hours of work without having to pick up shifts, I could work on going back to school,” Andrea says.

Many workers in hourly, low-wage jobs struggle to manage their lives while navigating unpredictable work schedules. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 17 percent of workers in the labor force experienced unstable work shifts, and that the lowest income workers (those earning less than $22,500 per year) were most likely to experience this scheduling unpredictability. The study links instability of shift schedules to lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of family stress. Further research finds that shift work is associated with diminished cognition and physical health.

Additionally, studies find African Americans and families who speak Spanish at home are disproportionally affected by these challenges. The City of Seattle conducted a survey of approximately 700 local workers and 350 local managers to assess the scheduling challenges faced by city workers. The survey found that scheduling issues caused difficulties in the lives of roughly one third of workers overall, compared to 40 percent of workers who speak Spanish at home and 40 percent of African Americans, who said scheduling posed challenges for taking classes.

Retail, hospitality, and warehouse work all respond to demand that can fluctuate throughout the day, week, or season: a coffee shop may need more baristas during the morning hours; and an online retailer may need more shipping employees in November and December. But as traditional methods of scheduling are replaced by more precise forecasting technologies, workers have faced even more unpredictability with their schedules. The increasing use of scheduling software by businesses has led to widely fluctuating hours, impractical commutes, and convoluted childcare arrangements for many.

City leaders are recognizing the importance of balancing worker quality of life with business interests; several cities have taken action recently to address these challenges, and more are quickly joining the movement. In September, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance that requires retailers and large chains to give their employees two weeks’ notice of shift scheduling. Employers who do not provide the advance notice will be required to provide additional pay, which includes:

  • One additional hour of “predictability pay” if an employer adds hours to the employee’s schedule after it is posted
  • Pay for half of the hours not worked if an employee is scheduled for a shift and then sent home early
  • Half-time pay for any shift employees who are “on-call” for but do not get called into work

In addition, the law requires a minimum of 10 hours between shifts – which would protect workers from “clopening” shifts.

Other cities are taking action as well. Portland, Oregon, and Emeryville, California, recently passed ordinances like Seattle’s, and New York City officials have voiced support for a similar measure that applies only to fast food workers.

City leaders know that low-wage, hourly workers struggle to balance the needs of their jobs with family obligations. Measures that require employers to provide advance knowledge of shift scheduling can help workers achieve that balance, maintain their employment, and advance in their careers – all of which results in healthier and more productive cities.

Lily Roberts photoAbout the author: Lily Roberts is an Intern with the NLC YEF Institute’s Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment team.

Early Childhood Success is a Citywide Priority

A well-aligned early care and education system includes streamlined communication and coordinated services that address the full range of academic, behavioral, health and family issues.

teacher with kids - blog(Getty/Jupiterimages)

As a culmination of the National League of Cities’ (NLC) two-year project to help cities align early childhood care and education systems from birth through third grade, NLC hosted the National Briefing for Educational Alignment for Young Children in Washington, D.C. recently. This event brought together high-level federal officials, national organizations and mayors from across the country on a rainy November day to discuss lessons learned from six cities that have been developing citywide systems to promote educational alignment for young children over the last two years.

With the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families supports cities in their alignment efforts through its Educational Alignment for Young Children (EAYC) initiative.

The six participating EAYC cities, all of which have made significant progress toward aligning resources and services and developing partnerships to improve early childhood care and education, include:

The national briefing featured opening remarks from Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities, and Joelle-Jude Fontaine, program officer for WKKF. Clifford Johnson, executive director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, moderated a panel of three mayors committed to ensuring that families have access to high-quality early care and education for their children. The panelists included Betsy Price, mayor of Fort Worth; Pedro Segarra, mayor of Hartford; and Lovely Warren, mayor of Rochester.

Mayor Price emphasized the need to engage the business community on early learning issues, and Mayor Segarra noted how his city’s control of the school distrticts has influenced their work around educational alignment. Mayor Warren discussed how Rochester is a program-rich community that is working to be more results-driven.

After an engaging discussion that provided a unique mayoral perspective on the necessary building blocks for early childhood success, Dr. Libby Doggett of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), Dr. Ellen Wheatley of the Administration for Children and Families and Calvin Johnson of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development joined the mayors on stage for comments and Q&A from the audience.

Dr. Doggett stated the need for creative partnerships between DOE and communities, and promoted the use of DOE funds for programs for children ages birth to three. Dr. Wheatley appreciated the mayors’ focus on family engagement and emphasized the need for cities to support all child care providers including home-based providers. Mr. Johnson emphasized HUD’s potential to better support young children living in public housing, highlighting the fact that the number of young children in public housing is so great that they could make up their own large city.

The briefing then segued into table conversations about key takeaways from the panel discussion and next steps for the six EAYC cities. Participants emphasized the importance of local leadership in improving outcomes for cities’ youngest residents.

Other key takeaways include:

  • Stakeholders need more opportunities to exchange and build on innovative ideas and successes.
  • Empowering and listening to parents is critical.
  • Mayors and city councilmembers can act as champions for early childhood by making it a citywide priority.
  • Cities need to think creatively about where and how collaboration can occur, and with whom.

NLC’s National Briefing on Educational Alignment for Young Children brought together a diverse set of voices and perspectives in the early childhood field and beyond to think critically about how policymakers and practitioners can improve outcomes for the nation’s youngest learners. NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families is committed to supporting municipal leadership in early childhood and serving as a resource and facilitator for collaboration within and among cities across the country.

Lauren Robertson
About the Author:
Lauren Robertson is the associate for early childhood in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.