Prioritize children and families; defend the Office of Early Childhood

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To our new governor:

Faced with a projected two-year budget deficit of over $4.6 billion, you and your administration will soon be confronted with many difficult choices. Amidst these challenging decisions, and with an eye toward the future of Connecticut, we offer you one easy answer. To ensure that young children and their families can thrive while contributing to the shared prosperity of our state, preserve the independence, momentum, and power of the Office of Early Childhood.

As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to improving outcomes for young children, the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance knows that investing in early childhood is not always an easy sell.

Still, research has long shown that the value of investing in early childhood is immense. Recent analysis suggests that high-quality, birth-to-five early education is associated with a 13 percent return on investment, stemming from the positive health, crime, income, education, and parental workforce participation outcomes due to quality childcare. Leading experts even argue that in order to reduce future deficits and strengthen the economy we must increase, not cut the programs and services that provide young children with the opportunities, resources, and protections they need to grow up healthy and reach their fullest potential.

As someone with a business background, surely you would agree that we should approach such a robust investment opportunity armed with the best strategies and resources available.

Thankfully, your predecessor had the vision to consolidate early childhood programs from five different agencies into one and put a commissioner in charge. Under Commissioner David Wilkinson, the Connecticut Office Early Childhood (OEC) manages a considerable budget with comparably few staff, a bright spot of governmental efficiency that warrants preservation, not absorption into a larger agency. The agency champions the collection (and integration!) of data, so that we as taxpayers can know that our government is working smarter and harder for children.

The OEC also has a unique mandate. By taking in programs which were once small line-items buried in huge agencies, the OEC has raised the level of expectation, innovation, and performance of numerous critically important child-focused programs. These include home visiting, early intervention for children with developmental delays, child care and preschool among others.

Take for example, Care4Kids, the state’s primary childcare subsidy for working families. Pulled from the Department of Social Services, where it was a small line-item relative to the agency’s Medicaid budget, under OEC, Care4Kids is now receiving the focus it is due as a vital program, which enables parents to work, while providing children with access to quality care.

At the more micro-level, under Commissioner David Wilkinson, the Office of Early Childhood has garnered national recognition for several innovations that promise to improve outcomes for children and families and lower the long-term cost to taxpayers. Through their new rate card pilot, the OEC is offering outcome-based bonuses to home visitors who work with at-risk families through the federally-funded Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.

By linking incentive payments to positive outcomes in the areas of: healthy births, safe children, family stability, and caregiver employment, the OEC is ensuring that government contracts deliver on the results our children and families need.

In the last year alone, the OEC has made tremendous progress distilling feedback from parents and service providers down to a set of recognized pain-points, and then developing action steps to guide their work. That level of responsiveness is refreshing, and reminds us that the OEC is not the DMV.

This is not to say that the agency has entirely eliminated the pain-points facing childcare providers, early educators, and families with small children throughout our state. Rather, that as our next governor, you will be better equipped to handle them by preserving the OEC and building on the momentum gained in the last few years.

To allow our state to continue the work of building a better future for our youngest residents, we urge you to invest in young children and not to succumb to the temptation of simplistic solutions. While some might spin the idea of merging departments as a way to streamline government, when it comes to the Office of Early Childhood, it won’t actually save our state much money if it erases years of hard-earned progress and innovation.

Merrill Gay is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance.


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