Local Government Funding for Early Learning on the Rise

In addition to federal and state funding for high-quality, equitable early childhood programs, local governments also have a role to play. Often they are overlooked, yet a county or municipality can budget for early childhood, either through existing revenue or by raising additional revenue. Local governments can fill funding gaps so more families can access programs. These programs – such as child care and NC-Pre-K – are part of our infrastructure, providing a vital need that allows parents to work.

What We Know

• High quality early childhood education supports healthy development, well-being and life outcomes, such as good health and academic achievement.
• The return on investment from funding comprehensive, high-quality birth to five early childhood programs is 13%. Outcomes to measure the ROI include health, crime, income, IQ and the increase in a mother’s income after returning to work due to child care availability.
• Access to these programs for children of color is an essential part of public policy to tackle racial inequities.
Voters across the political spectrum, race, ethnicity, age and parental status continue to believe that investing in early learning programs should be a top priority.

Yet funding continues to be inadequate to ensure our children get a strong start in life.

That’s why there is a groundswell of communities across the country advocating for local investments in early learning programs. While funding these programs has traditionally been through federal and state dollars, few local governments have allocated funds. The pandemic has been a wake-up call; however, many local investment campaigns and dedicated funds predate 2020. One noteworthy driver of change has been data showing the lack of economic mobility in a given city or county. As part of local governments’ strategies to improve economic mobility, early learning is recognized as a key component to support parents’ ability to work and for the healthy development of young children – our future workforce.

How Your Community Can Invest in Early Learning

Through our updated Local Funding for Early Learning: A Community Toolkit website, the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) has mapped more than 35 local governments that fund a variety of early learning programs, from prekindergarten for three and four year old children to improving program quality to raising wages for early childhood providers and teachers. There are also numerous state-funded programs and state legislation – such as in Florida – to enable local governments to invest in early learning programs. There are likely many more examples – our preliminary research shows about 50 local governments funding these programs across the country.

We’ve written case studies about 16, including four victories in the 2020 general election. These four communities were all successful through local ballot initiatives. Voters petitioned for an item to be placed on the ballot to raise revenue for early learning programs.

Our new case studies profile Multnomah County, Oregon; St. Louis, Missouri; Cincinnati, Ohio and San Antonio, Texas. The latter two renew funding first initiated in 2016 and 2012 respectively. Two of the four communities are generating revenue through property tax; one through sales tax and another through a progressive income tax.

Our case studies tell the stories of change by exploring each community’s strategy to success. Some work has been years in the making, while some have failed on the first try. We interviewed the initiators, the advocates and the champions to understand what it takes to create a dedicated funding stream for access to high-quality, equitable early learning programs that support children, parents and the professionals that care for children.

Profiles of Success

Here’s a preview from our new case studies about victories won mid-pandemic in 2020.

• In Multnomah County, a progressive income tax funds Preschool for All, a tuition-free universal prekindergarten that also raises teacher wages and is considered an equitable model to raise revenue.
• In St. Louis, grants are used to improve the quality of early childhood programs. Grants fund licensed providers that serve children from low-income families through home-based care, community centers, and private and public programs.
• The renewals of funding by voters for the Cincinnati Preschool Promise and Pre-K for San Antonio used data from independent evaluations to show success. The improved outcomes range from improved kindergarten readiness; stronger third grade reading and math scores; an increase in daily attendance; lowering the number of students assigned to special education; and the elimination of the need to repeat a grade.

All of our case studies can be found online here.

Ready to Get Started?

Our website also documents lessons learned by advocates; details how to assess funding options and your community’s readiness to advocate for local government funding; and for North Carolina advocates, what you need to know about options available to raise local revenue. Explore all of the Readiness Tools online here.

With our partners at the NC Budget and Tax Center, we are ready to assist North Carolina communities in exploring opportunities to create a dedicated local funding stream for early childhood education. Get in touch at ncecf@buildthefoundation.org.

A special thank you goes to the graduate students at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy for their work on the new case studies in 2021, amid the pandemic and a shortened spring semester to complete their work.