Advocating for Early Childhood Education
Mike: Welcome to Episode 49 of preschool and beyond advocating for early childhood education with North Carolina senator Jeff Jackson. This week we celebrate the 48th annual weekly young child week which was first established by the National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in 1971. To recognize the importance of early childhood programs and services accordingly, the week of the young child is a time to plan how we as citizens of community of a state, and a nation will better meet the needs of all young children and their families. Whether you're a parent, early educator or just have an interest in early education, it is important for all of us to help advocate for policies that benefit young children and families. We should be visible advocates, not only in our local communities, but also at the state and federal level. Today, we're extremely excited to have a legislator who is a leading advocate for early childhood education in North Carolina Senator Jeff Jackson. Senator Jackson has represented the 37th District based in Mecklenburg County since 2014. Senator Jackson calls the expansion of pre-k one of his top priorities. He formed the state's first early education caucus and was recognized by the North Carolina childcare coalition for his leadership and advocacy for early childhood education. Thanks so much for joining us today. Senator
Senator Jackson: Thanks for having me. I've been looking forward to it.
Mike: Great. And so today's episode for our listeners will largely focus on North Carolina. But the principles that we discuss and the ways to advocate for children are relevant no matter where you live. I also want to introduce or introduce, again, my wife, Dr. Alex Livas-Dlott. She'll be joining us for the conversation as well. Alex is the Durham pre k manager at Child Care Services Association (CCSA). They are the managing agency for Durham County's pre k expansion project. Welcome back to
the show, Alex.
Alex: Thank you excited to be here.
Mike: So we'll start with Senator Jackson. So early education is an issue that you are very passionate about. And you've devoted a lot of time working on this issue since you became a North Carolina senator back in 2014. So why did you decide to make early childhood education a major priority for yourself,
Senator Jackson: When I joined the Senate, I didn't know anything about early childhood education. But one of the cool things about joining the General Assembly is for the first month, you're going to have people cycling through your office pitching you on what they think is the most important thing the state could be doing and what your top priority should be. So you get to hear all these people's takes on what your legislative agenda should look like and they educate you as best they can in the time that you have allotted on why it's really important. And so you meet with the transportation folks and the energy folks, and not just education broadly, but specifically, the higher education, community college K through two. So everything at the end of that month or six weeks, what really stood out to me was early childhood, for three reasons. It is politically possible, because it's inherently bipartisan. It is financially possible in that we are talking about money, but it's an affordable amount of money and the results are potentially transformative. To me, it's the only area of public policy that has all three of those features, politically possible, financially possible and potentially transformative. So that should be the highest priority.
Mike: Great and then one thing I just wanted to emphasize that you mentioned is that, you know, you came here, this wasn't your big issue. But that's why it's so important for us as early childhood advocates to approach even if you're not really comfortable going over to your Congress, your local councils and make that case, because I think it's our job to educate the people that would be voting on laws, and we need to get it on their agenda. So I'm glad the early childhood advocates were able to make a compelling case to you.
Senator Jackson: That's a great point, advocacy here makes a huge difference. A
Mike: And so one action you've taken, since you've come to the Senate is you formed the early childhood education caucus during your first term. So if you just tell us a little bit about that group, and what you've accomplished so far,
Senator Jackson: So the main benefit of this group is just to establish this as a bipartisan or really a nonpartisan space to sort of carve out for early childhood, because look in the North Carolina General Assembly these days, it's a pretty partisan environment. And it's not, you know, it's only every couple of days that we see some headline and people are reminded how partisan that it is here. So what we really wanted to do was sort of protect this ground from becoming just another partisan football. And I think we've succeeded in doing that you don't see people trying to weaponize this for political purposes that often, which is good, because in order to make progress here, you're going to need both sides coming together, neither side is going to get its complete vision of what early childhood looks like. And you've also been able to help educate people like I needed to be educated. So I sort of assumed that everyone else here is sort of like I was on my first day and that I didn't know a lot about early childhood. All right, well, let's, let's show them how compelling a case this really is. By sort of walking them through what I've learned, in the years that I've been here, and do that in a compressed form that respects their time do it somewhere around lunch, and it works. It's great. You can make a powerful case to someone who knows nothing about early childhood in about 15 or 20 minutes.
Mike: How many members do you have as part of this group?
Senator Jackson: Well, we don't really tell you sort of like whoever can come on day. Yeah. Right. And honestly, if someone didn't come last time, they didn't come to the time before that, but they want to come next time, we're happy to have them, right. As a legislator, you're just getting pulled a million different directions. Sometimes you just can't show up.
Mike: Yeah so you came to a lot of people came to know you back in 2015 and you made some national headlines by being the only senator to show up during a snow day. Showing upon the snow day, in North Carolina is a really big deal. Because in this area, things just completely shut down. So one thing that's very impressive is that you showed up and you let people know what you would do if you were the only legislator. If you could pass whatever you wanted that day. So you know, he had a little rundown on Twitter of some of the great legislation he passed because he was the only one there. Let's say, here we are in 2019. If that actually were to come true and you could pass anything you wanted. In our legislature, what kind of laws would you propose for North Carolina to move forward in early education?
Senator Jackson: I would pass the bill that I filed last year, which was called Go Big for Early Childhood. So one thing that the advocacy space really needs to take on is a really concrete blueprint to give legislators. Here's the progress we expect you to make over the next reasonable period, 4, 5, 6, or 7 years, we've got some statements of principles. As in you should not just say, hey, legislators, you should embrace policies that ensure high quality and ensure access. Well, we actually need something more specific from the advocacy community. So what I tried hard to do was sort of wring out from them, what are your concrete, but but still very ambitious. proposals and, and best ideas. And so we put that into a bill called Go Big for Early Childhood. Basically, it's double the funding for North Carolina pre K, double the funding for Smart Start. And then you have to address salaries for early childhood educators. Because if you double the funding, you're going to need more of these people. Turnover is already a really, really big problem. And you really can make more at fast food than you can do in early childhood. But the trick here is early childhood educators aren't state employees. So you can't just pull a lever here and have their salary go up, you've got to sort of work the tax code to make sure you can put more money in their pocket, and you add in their experience and stuff like that. So that's what I would do. And honestly, all it is, is going from 1% of the budget, which early childhood currently is to 2%. Yeah, that's it. And that's a total revolution in the space. Yeah, doesn't require higher taxes, or anything, you go from 1% to 2%. And you have potentially transformed this states potential over the long haul,
Mike: And we're starting to see that in some of our communities here in North Carolina. I'm gonna bring Alex in a little bit to talk about some of the things that they're doing in Durham to expand and also ensure that quality that you were talking about is maintained. But let's talk a little bit more at the state level. So right now you are a member of the minority party here in the Senate. And so anything that's passed needs to be on a bipartisan nature. So what are some realistic goals you have in the next session or two?
Senator Jackson: That's a really great question. So I had a meeting last week with Representative Josh Dobson, who was also a big champion of early childhood difference between us as he's in the majority party, right? And I said, Josh, you know what, I know what 50 yards of progress looks like here, what do five yards and 10 yards in 15 yards look like here. So that's what he and I are working on right now. And look, he's going to take the lead because as a member of the majority party, I sort of want him and representative Craig Horne who is also been a leader in this space. You know, these are people who are going to set the 5, 10 yard 15 yard agenda for us. And I'm going to support them in doing that as best I can while still articulating what 50 yards looks like, because we need to have a direction and an ambition.
Mike: Yep.So just looking at the legislative accomplishments and lack of accomplishments like this is an issue that is consistently polled very well among all sorts of people of different political persuasions. It's not been a Democrat or Republican issue, liberal or conservative, but the actual action on it hasn't really lined up with the amount of support it's had.
Senator Jackson: And that's because that's because the constituency can't advocate for itself. They're not going to rally, right? Or if they did, we'd have to call you know, social services because someone brought a bunch of toddlers to the General Assembly. Like they're not going to hold signs. Yeah. And they're not going to vote against you and they're not going to threaten you and there are a lot of constituencies that are just going to be 10 times more vocal, even if early childhood deserves to be a higher financial priority.
Mike: Right, because there are so many urgent priorities too, that people, you know, are going to bring to your attention. We need this right now. And you guys, you know, usually your sometimes will take action on that. But something like early childhood, you know, you talk about the long term investment, all of that are great arguments. But sometimes, you know, we need to also make sure that it's seen as an urgent issue, that's something that has to be addressed.
Senator Jackson: I agree. And look, it's 20 years, until you really see the fruits of your labor there until you really see the return on investment, at which point it becomes obvious. Oh, well, of course, we should continue doing this.
Mike: So let's talk about advocacy a little bit and then we'll talk about advocacy at the local community with Alex. So what are some good ways, what's the best way as either a parent of a preschool age child or an early childhood educator? How can we get this issue best on your radar and the radar of the legislature?
Senator Jackson: The best way to advocate for this issue as a parent is to be specific about the program that your child participated in and the benefits that your child received. So it's great to say early childhood education generically is important. I'll take that as an advocate. But what I prefer is someone saying, look, my child participated in pre-K, and it made an enormous difference in his or her life. That's a personal story that is, is hard to, to ignore. And that's going to connect with people not just in a logical way, but in an emotional way. You hear from a mom or a dad, pre-k made an enormous difference for little Susie. Okay, that's now a permanent piece of something I'm going to find important and, and respond to as a legislator.
Mike: Yeah, what have you found effective, Alex?
Dr. Livas-Dlott: I think when parents come and give those specific stories, when they speak to the county. So for us, for Durham County, it's the county commissioners, they come to meetings, you know, sometimes when you come to those meetings, and you hear personal stories, whether it's affordable housing, and they connect it to their personal lives, how it's going to improve their personal lives in the Durham community, it seems to be more effective. You know, and having those local voices really share the impact it's going to have. On the flip side with the workforce, the same, I mean, hearing from providers from having so much difficulty hiring staff, because they're choosing other jobs because of the you know, the lower pay and the lack of funding for higher pay. So I think, yeah, sharing personal stories, connecting it to the community, and being very explicit, I think, does help.
Mike: And so what would you tell someone who says, you know, my kids are all grown up, or I don't have any kids. So this isn't an issue I need to care about.
Senator Jackson: I would say, look, half our kids can't read, okay? Or they're not proficient in reading by third grade, which is basically the same thing, because it means they're not going to be able to read to do their job, they're not gonna be able to read to teach themselves new skills. And how do you like the prospect of growing up in an information economy in which half of our kids who become half of our grown ups aren't able to fully participate in that economy? What do you think that means for us economically, what do you think that means for us in terms of our prison population, right? So I think it's the strongest case to make. No matter what you care about, no matter what your issue is, it all feeds back to this. It helps build healthier, vibrant communities, to have kids have a strong foundation for life and get to school ready to learn so that when they get to third grade, they are reading.
90% of our juvenile delinquents are functionally illiterate. Is that a coincidence? I would say no, right? So if you want to make sure that all of our third graders are reading on grade level, which is really important, because that's when they make the transition from learning how to read, to using reading to learn, then you can't have the on ramp at second grade or first grade, because we've got thousands of kindergarteners showing up to the very first day of school having never held a book, not knowing any of the colors, not knowing any of the letters, not knowing their names. And I just wasn't aware of that before I joined the legislature that thousands of kindergarteners show up basically, too far behind to ever catch up despite the best efforts of all their wonderful teachers. So what are we gonna do about those kids? We're just gonna write them off from day one?
Mike: Yeah and we're talking about the investment financially. And yes, it is an investment in paying money for early childhood, early childhood intervention. But you know, making that case to someone who might not care as much, you're gonna be paying some some day, you know, whether it's more services needed elementary school, high school, or they're just not gonna have the skills later to do what they want to do in society. So, you know, we're strong advocates of giving kids the help they need getting them on the right track in early age, because it is a lot easier to do it when they're three, four or five years old versus 14, 15 and 16.
Senator Jackson: You know what I agree.
Mike: So, you know, there's been a big emphasis across the country, many states and communities are really focusing on the expansion portion of child early childhood education and having universal initiatives which is a really great thing. But there's also concern about quality you mentioned earlier. So how can we do both? Expand and give more kids access to early, great early childhood programs. But also making sure that they are great that this is that these are high quality centers.
Senator Jackson: At the beginning, what you have to do is you have to make sure that when you advocate to the public, when I advocate to the public about what funding priorities should be that the conversation isn't solely about access. That you that you foreground for them quality, because look, North Carolina, that's an area where we're strong, right? We've built a reputation as a high quality preschool state, we sort of made the decision to prioritize quality over quantity, there are other states that have made a different decision. I won't name names, right. But the gentleman the community know who I'm talking about here, right? So what we have to do is what people know, we should be proud of the fact that we have high quality preschool, early childhood education. Well, it's important for us for in the literature, to make sure that that's consistent. If we, if we're serious about getting the ROI that we say, then we have no choice but to keep it high quality, because a lot of those gains fade when you switch from high quality to low quality, and then you build it into your funding. So we're not going to fund an increase in access that allows the quality to drop, because because there's almost no point.
Mike: I want to talk a little bit about how in Durham, you guys are making sure that in your pre k expansion, you're keeping the quality high.
Dr. Livas-Dlott: Yes. So in Durham County, the county commissioners, they've found their investment includes increasing spaces, but also they are funding quality initiatives. So part of our job at Child Care Services Association is we're building, it's called the Durham pre k technical assistance pipeline. And so programs apply to this pipeline to start receiving weekly technical assistance and coaching and professional development in programs to raise their quality app so that once we also have the Durham pre k quality standards, so not all programs can meet them. So once they've worked through a year in the pipeline, they're building their quality, teachers are going back to school and enrolling and getting professional development plans, working on CLASS, you know, teacher child interactions, and they're ready to apply for Durham, pre K, you know, they're higher quality. So the Durham County investment increases spaces, but also has invested substantially in increasing the quality of early childhood programs in Durham County.
Senator Jackson: That's outstanding.Yes, the way you do it.
Mike: And I think it's just important that we get it right, you know, people are gonna hold you accountable as legislator, when you're setting aside money for this, they're going to hold communities accountable. And so we want to make sure that we're putting high quality programs out there, and it might take a little bit longer to get there. But you want to make sure it's done, right, because you see studies all over the place and there's some things can't be measured. But a lot of the ones that don't show early childhood education to be as effective is because the quality hasn't been there.
Senator Jackson: And we should be cautious with the fact that we're demanding very high quality from people who were also saying you're gonna be paid very well. Right?
Dr. Livas-Dlott: Well, and the other thing that Durham does is any, any teacher that's in Durham, pre-K, whether they're in the public school, Headstart or a private center will need to be paid on the Durham Public Schools salary. So for,
Senator Jackson: That's very strong
Dr. Livas-Dlott: And so they're funding it with a higher child reimbursement rate than NC pre-K. And so they're adding to that funding. And then they're also funding it with supplemental payments
Senator Jackson: That's very strong, because a lot of the turnover is in to the public school system.
Dr Livas-Dlott: Yes, that is what's happening in Durham. And so in order to reduce some of that turnover, is making sure that the providers and even in the private centers are getting the same salary. And they haven't worked out the benefits part because it's a new program and we're still working through those, but they're trying to kind of level the playing field. And for some teachers that we're about to start classrooms, they're gonna get a $34,000 raise.
Senator Jackson: That's huge. Yes. Right. Yeah,I've never gotten a raise.
That's pretty good.
Dr. Livas-Dlott: And so but that, you know, it's motivating, it's motivating to really be in, you're now seen as a professional, you're, you know, and it's motivating to really work on your professional development.
Senator Jackson: And it's an incredibly hard job it is, especially when you when you want to do it really well. And when you're being told and regulated that you have to do it really well. Look, if you put me in a room with a bunch of three year olds, I'm probably not going to perform at the level that we would expect of our educators, so legit hard job.
Dr. Livas-Dlott: And there's really high expectations because there is so much funding and pressure and studies and evaluations, but we should also support them to make sure that they're performing, you know, feeling well compensated and feeling like they're, you know, that they're being appreciated for what the hard job that they are doing,
Senator Jackson: Just like teachers.
Mike: Yeah, no, it is a huge problem in the field, just not having enough teachers, getting teachers to stay at centers for lengthy periods of time when they can go somewhere and make a lot more money for an easier job
Senator Jackson: Like McDonald's. Right, like managing Burger King. Yeah.
Dr. Livas-Dlott: And then even for teachers assistance, we're trying to use the Durham public school certified salary. It's not even that high. But the goal for Durham County is really to move it to more livable wage because teacher's assistants really struggled the most, currently, and they have a hard, you know, high turnover because of it, because so many jobs pay so much better.
Mike: So I want to end with the last question about of our listeners and for families at our center. If after listening, and they feel inspired to take action, what's one concrete thing they can do tomorrow to help move this forward?
Senator Jackson: Call your state legislator, you'll get their assistant, their legislative assistant, and say, I'd like to set up a time to meet with my state legislature. The emails are great, especially when they're personally written and be sure and say I'm a constituent and like the first line of the email that's really important, and don't use any profanity in the subject line. Okay, put the profanity at the bottom of the email,
Mike: Especially for early childhood
Senator Jackson: Especially for early childhood, right. But what really moves the needle with these guys is showing up and having a personal meeting. I mean, there are just very few times I've had constituents come to me with me to talk about early childhood education specifically. So I can remember distinctly almost all of those conversations. And the same would be true for any of the other state legislators here, it would be a shock to them. If a constituent made an appointment to come to their office to advocate for early childhood education, that would be a new experience for a lot of these folks.
Dr. Livas-Dlott: That's a very great idea and something of an action item. Yeah, a lot of parents can do.
Mike: And we'll put in the show notes how like, what numbers to call how they can get in touch
Senator Jackson: Too easy. I know if you've never done it, it sounds like it must be this... It's it's a Google search. And then you call the number and then you put it on your calendar. That's all it is.
Dr. Livas-Dlott: And also not just for parents, but for teachers to come out.
Senator Jackson: Oh, please do. I mean, we would love to hear from early we should be hearing from early childhood educators to say, here's what I'm getting paid. Yeah, here's what you're asking me to do. Here's what my day to day life looks like and here's and just show like, show them on a big whiteboard, like write the number, here per hour, this is what I'm making, because it's shocking. Yeah, given their level of responsibility and level of trust we have in that.
Mike: Thank you, since we are early educators, and we do a show and tell segment to end our show. So is there something that it could either be a tip, recommendation or something you enjoy doing with your younger children that you'd like to share with us?
Senator Jackson: Well, I've decided I want to use this opportunity to announce that I am I'm committing to zero percent glitter emissions from our preschool by 2025. Because I've got three kids and my house is just full of glitter. It's on me, it's in my car. And when I put on my suit jacket, I see little specks of glitter in the morning. So look, I'm not a radical. I'm not saying go to zero percent next year. All right, you this is a phase in process, we're going to cut by 20% per year. And look, I don't care what the polling says. Okay, glitter is out of control. Yeah. Someone needs to stand up while else do we get elected, if not to stand on what's right, this is the right thing to do.
Mike: We appreciate your leadership and courage and making that announcement our show we feel honored.
Dr. Livas-Dlott: Many people would agree with you support that.
Mike: But on a serious note, we really appreciate you taking time today and also for your leadership, knowing we have a strong advocate in the state on this issue really means a lot and we thank you and we hope we can support you in any way that's helpful.
Senator Jackson: Be optimistic about our potential for progress here. I know morale sort of low, like nationally for a lot of reasons. But here's an area where we really could make some progress. stay optimistic.
Mike: Well, thank you very much for being with us today, Senator Jackson. Thank you Alex. You can find links to what we talked about in our show notes page www discoverychilddevelopmencenter.com on our Facebook page facebook.com/preschoolandbeyond. We thank you all for listening.
Senator Jeff Jackson