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Midlands Voices: Nebraska has important opportunity for early childhood progress

Midlands Voices: Nebraska has important opportunity for early childhood progress

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COVID-19 has jolted the country awake to the need for more and better child care. On Capitol Hill, a new federal plan to improve our faltering early childhood care and education system is taking shape. It may be the biggest thing to happen for American child care in generations. And if it does happen, Nebraska will have a powerful new tool to use that money wisely.

Our state’s current early childhood funding reality, and a potential path forward, are much clearer thanks to the hard work of a university researcher and policy analyst, and thanks to a state lawmaker and business and education leaders who encouraged that work. It’s the sort of work that doesn’t often get headlines. But it’s key if we want to build an early childhood system that delivers quality early care and education to every Nebraska family who wants it.

“There is no way we can move towards the systems-level change we want to see without this foundational starting point,” says Jen Goettemoeller, a longtime early childhood policy analyst. “This isn’t the end. This is the very first step.”

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Matthew Hansen

Goettemoeller and Cathey Huddleston-Casas, a Buffett Early Childhood Institute expert, spent nearly a year digging deep into federal and state budgets. They mapped the byzantine ways that money currently flows from D.C. and Lincoln to child care providers in places like Omaha, Ord, and O’Neill.

What they learned: $138 million in federal funding and $77 million in state funding came into the state’s early care and education system in 2017 through 13 separate funding streams. It’s a confusing system, burdensome to child care providers who spend time and energy they can’t spare filling out paperwork and trying to understand it.

“The providers and the families are really at the mercy of what the government does or doesn’t do on this front,” says Goettemoeller. “It’s really the leadership at the state level that can make this a better functioning system.”

Huddleston-Casas and Goettemoeller provided their findings in a report that allows state leaders to know exactly how many public dollars we spend on early childhood, and where that money comes from.

Huddleston-Casas also calculated the gap between the amount we currently spend, and what it would cost to fully fund Nebraska’s early care and education system, using modeling estimates from a blue-ribbon national report.

In Nebraska, we spend roughly $459 million on early care and education, most of it money from parents who often strain to pay for child care. But we need $911 million to fully fund a quality early childhood system.

Put simply, we were half-funding early childhood in Nebraska long before COVID-19 struck.

“If we’re going to get money to stabilize early care and education, we need to recognize that the system we have wasn’t stable before COVID,” says Huddleston-Casas, the associate director of workforce planning and development for the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Huddleston-Casas’ work proposes a phased solution to this gap, including higher federal and state contributions and an injection of business and philanthropic money.

All this work in Nebraska provides a model to other states, something that can be replicated across the U.S. as we try to move from a frustrating present for American child care into a better future.

“There haven’t been a lot of states who have done real thinking about this,” says Simon Workman, an early childhood funding expert and former director for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress. “Putting the governance piece together with the finance piece is really the sweet spot. And it’s something that Nebraska is leading on, to be quite honest.”

The effort is yielding results. Sen. John Stinner, Republican from Gering and chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, had been asking questions like, “How much do we spend now?” and “How much do we need to spend?” while serving on the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission. The commission, a group of 40 civic and education leaders, encouraged the research to answer these questions and placed it in their final report.

Stinner and lawmakers from both parties added $5 million in state early childhood funding this year. They are working to unlock federal COVID relief money as it arrives in Nebraska.

Crucially, the funding report was ready when a global pandemic struck, revealing child care’s importance as parents struggled to work from home and others struggled to find child care.

The federal government under both the Trump and Biden administrations has invested heavily in the reeling early childhood system. Biden’s proposed American Families Plan is meant to grow child care and early childhood education in the future.

In 2021, there’s more focus on and potential funding for early childhood than ever before. Nebraska is now better prepared for that focus.

The authors of the report, and the members of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, believe it can be used to build something better in Nebraska.

Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is a longtime Nebraska reporter and columnist.

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