Americans Overwhelmingly Favor Expanding Early Childhood Education. Is Congress Listening?

A new bipartisan national poll released by The First Five Years Fund reveals that both Republicans and Democrats favor a strong federal investment in early childhood education. According to the poll, 71 percent of voters—including 60 percent of Republicans—support this investment even if it increased the deficit in the short term and paid for itself in the long-term by improving children’s education. These voters want Congress and the Obama Administration to make early childhood education – the second highest priority among voters according to the poll – a top legislative priority.

The poll digs down into specific early childhood programs and finds that voters favor deep and wide investment: 91% favor making early education child care more affordable, 86 percent favor funding programs that meet specific quality standards, 85 percent favored building better and more accessible preschool services, 79 percent favored making high-quality, early learning programs more affordable, and 77 percent favor volunteer home visiting and parent education programs.

Kris Perry, Executive Director of the First Five Years Fund, participated in a discussion of the poll at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on July 17. Joining her in analyzing the results were Jim Messina, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Campaign Manager for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Kevin Madden, former Senior Advisor to Governor Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and moderator Libby Nelson, an education reporter from Vox Media.

For Perry, the biggest revelation in the poll  was “its strong bipartisan support for increasing federal debt in the short term in order to achieve greater economic gains through investment in quality early childhood education.”

That support, Perry noted, “includes a majority of Republicans. An overwhelming majority of Americans appreciate the value of early childhood education. They understand its return on investment. They demand that Congress funds programs that meet high quality standards.”

“The country’s already decided that we need this kind of funding to help our kids walk into kindergarten as the best-prepared kids in the world,” said Jim Messina. “And they deserve exactly that. And the fact that Americans across party lines think that it’s okay to even spend into the national debt on this issue shows you the complete support this thing has.”

Both Messina and Madden agreed that this issue should be high on Congress’ priority list with midterms looming in the next couple of months. Legislative action actually might help lift its dismal approval ratings out the gutter.

“It’s a no-brainer, except for the logic-free zone called Washington, DC,” Messina cautioned.

Madden agreed that early childhood education presents an opportunity for bipartisan teamwork.

This issue finds itself on the ladder of priorities for many voters, and the fact that it’s at number two…Republicans have a real opportunity to talk about how they want to impact that debate, and how they want to essentially offer very solution-driven policies to address some of the challenges that we face in today’s economy,” Madden explained.

Libby Nelson displayed a journalist’s skepticism when she pointed out that education usually attracts high numbers in public opinion polls merely because very few people want to be seen as opposing programs that benefit children. A few years ago, everyone said they were for high standards but the Common Core has become one of the divisive political issues of 2014.

“If you want to elevate this and make it a more important political issue, how can you ensure that it stays as bipartisan and keeps these sort of high approval levels that we’ve seen in the poll results today?” Nelson asked.

Messina believes that the support for expanded early childhood education runs wide and deep enough to break through the polarization in the country.

“I do think there’s been a fundamental change in this issue,” he said. ” I agree with you that for the 25 years I’ve done campaigns, people always said, Oh, talk about education, talk about education. But this issue has now calcified at the very top.”

“The numbers speak to the fact that this isn’t an issue that’s defined by any one individual or one person, and it ought not to be viewed through that lens, as an Obama idea,” Madden added. “Because it’s clearly an idea that is not one that’s top-down, but instead it’s one that’s bottom-up. This is one that many people across the country believe in.”

Read the full poll results