Early education could be key to winning campaigns

An unfortunate hallmark of modern politics is that we often focus on polarizing wedge issues that divide us because they make for shocking cable-news sound bites. But with national elections won on the margins by razor-thin majorities in a handful of swing states, the presidential campaigns in both parties would be wise to take notice of an issue that can galvanize voters of all political persuasions: Early childhood education.

According to a new poll released by Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), an overwhelming majority of voters in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin believe investing in high-quality early childhood education is critical to the future of America. The comprehensive survey of 3,000 likely voters, conducted jointly by our polling firms, delves not just into attitudes about the importance of early education — it also gauges the popularity of a variety of mechanisms to fund expansion and tests the effectiveness of words and phrases that can be used to advocate on the topic. In short, it’s a campaign blueprint to harness the broad support for early childhood education and to turn it into a key component of a winning campaign platform.

To say that support is broad might be an understatement. In fact, attitudes about the importance of early childhood education reach near unanimity. There is little partisan divide in this data — a theme that plays out consistently through the survey — as 87 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of independents and 94 percent of Democrats said the years zero to 5 are extremely or very important to the learning and development of a child.

Going a step further, 63 percent of respondents answered that public education should start with preschool and be offered to all 4-year-olds. That figure represents a majority of Republicans, of independents and of Democrats; it also represents a majority in each of the five states surveyed. For voters, the importance of investing in early childhood and allocating tax dollars to our youngest learners is a settled issue. The next step is harnessing the political will to make expanding access and improving quality a reality.

To its credit, Save the Children Action Network is engaged in a bipartisan fashion to simultaneously push voters and candidates to make this issue a priority in 2016 and beyond. SCAN has sponsored the quadrennial Conversation with the Candidate series on WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., where all presidential candidates have already faced questions from activists on the importance of early childhood education.

The organization is also serious about the financing questions, which often gives elected officials from both parties pause, by putting forth a detailed menu of innovating mechanisms that could fund expanded early childhood education at the federal, state and local levels. We tested some of the options in the poll and found strong support for a number of them, including tax-credit and savings-account parity with higher education and a new form of public-private financing called Pay for Success. Pay for Success programs allow states and local communities to utilize innovative public-private partnerships for early childhood education and offer a new system for a smarter and more effective use of tax dollars.

The desire by all voters to prioritize early childhood education is clear; it is not a topic that can be labeled as progressive or conservative. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents said they would be more likely to support a presidential candidate who came out in favor of increased early childhood education spending. That figure cuts across partisan and demographic lines, with several critical voting subgroups asserting that this issue could define their vote.

Voters believe the facts about early education, which accounts for this broad-based support. Investments in the early years lay the foundation for success in school, career and life. They pay dividends for society with higher literacy and graduation rates, reduced crime statistics and a more educated, better-prepared workforce. Moreover, expanding access to high-quality education for young kids is the most effective way to close the growing opportunity gap in our country.

While voters recognize that ultimately it is parents who bear the responsibility for raising and instructing their kids, they also understand that early education can assist families, particularly those facing tough times, and ensure every child has access to the same educational opportunities.

The first five years are critical to the education and ultimate success of a child. Yet in this country, at all levels of government, we spend nearly all our tax dollars on K-12 education. This needs to change. The voters who will choose the next president are clear on this issue. We’re about to find out which candidates are listening.

Meyers, of TargetPoint Consulting, a Republican firm, and Greenberg, of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, conducted surveys in five presidential battleground states on behalf of Save the Children Action Network.