Two new Omaha groups focused on easing family poverty through early childhood education join a number of established programs with the same goal.
Omaha philanthropist Richard Holland on Thursday announced creation of the Holland Children's Movement, with a public policy focus, and the Holland Children's Institute for research and publication.
Educators and others welcomed Holland's involvement.
When you're talking about a problem as large as poverty and education, they said, there's always room for more voices.
“Everyone's been enthusiastic,” said John Cavanaugh, chief operating officer for both Holland groups.
Cavanaugh said he's already talked to several other agencies about how to coordinate efforts and prevent duplication.
Other groups working toward improving and expanding early childhood education include the Early Childhood Fund, an arm of philanthropist Susie Buffett's Sherwood Foundation. Buffett gave a substantial gift to establish the Buffett Early Childhood Institute through the University of Nebraska in 2011.
Jessie Rasmussen, a president of the Early Childhood Fund and a former teacher, said she's a fan of Holland and his passion for his cause.
“We absolutely will be working with him,” she said. “There is so much work to be done that it doesn't make sense to duplicate efforts or convey different messages.”
Ted Stilwill, chief executive officer of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, also was excited about Holland's announcement. The Learning Community is building a $4.6 million building in north Omaha to house a comprehensive early childhood education and training program.
He thinks Holland's groups are one indication that there's more interest in — and commitment to — early childhood education.
“Our collective vision is getting increasingly more clear. We have to intervene at an early age. We can't wait until they're 5 or even until they are 4,” Stilwill said.
Cavanaugh said he discussed the new groups with Learning Community representatives and with leaders of Building Bright Futures, an Omaha educational philanthropy formed to ensure that every metro-area child graduates from high school. Cavanaugh was executive director of Building Bright Futures until last summer, when it narrowed its focus and removed advocating for public policy from its mission.
Ken Bird, interim director of Building Bright Futures, said he wasn't sure what role his organization could play with Holland's groups because its board is still discussing its future. He did say, however, that board members remain committed to early childhood education, if not collectively then individually.
Cavanaugh also will work closely with other relevant groups to create a broad coalition of nonpartisan partners across the state.
He said the Holland Children's Movement would push to expand both Medicaid and state aid to early childhood education, and he already has identified bills to support in this year's Nebraska Legislature session. One of them is a measure introduced Wednesday that would continue child-care subsidies for parents who go over income limits.
Above all, Holland said Thursday, the effort must create more access to proper child care and preschool for disadvantaged children, making sure that those who work with young children have adequate training.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey is chairman of the board for the Holland Children's Movement. Other members include Holland and John Gottschalk, former CEO and publisher of The World-Herald. Holland is chairman of the Children's Institute board. His daughter, Mary Ann Holland, and retired financier Mike Yanney are the other members.
Holland said he started the groups because educational opportunities for the poor have lagged for a long time, and there has been a lack of real concern to change that, even though early childhood education has long been viewed as a way to break the cycle of generational poverty.
“We waste our breath talking about lower taxes and building new prisons and the rest of today's life, but we don't do anything about solving the problem of the poor child getting a decent education,” he said. “If it was all in place today, we wouldn't have any conversation about a new prison because we wouldn't need it.”
Holland provided around $500,000 as initial funding for the two groups, and Cavanaugh plans to seek additional funds across the state.
Neither group has a formal budget yet, Cavanaugh said, “but we will be doing that shortly.”
Holland, whose foundation reported assets of $116 million in 2012, said it will be money well spent.
“I think people have to realize that the benefits are outstanding. We're not spending just to be spending, we're using money to improve the lives of several thousand kids.”