Early Childhood in Nebraska Buoyed by Bipartisanship

In a year that may well stand out as a low point in our national history for extreme political brinksmanship, Nebraska legislators representing all points of the ideological spectrum took their own stand – a united one – in support of early childhood investment in 2013.   Faced by a wide range of difficult budgetary decisions, the 103rd Nebraska Legislature chose to advance eight separate bills directly affecting the safety, quality and availability of early care and education programs for the state’s youngest children and their families.

While all eight bills received remarkable amounts of bipartisan support from state legislators, few bills of any sort introduced during the 103rd Legislature drew such dramatic and diversified public endorsement as LB 190 and LB 495.  Together, these bills sought additional funds to expand high quality infant-toddler services provided through Nebraska’s innovative Sixpence program.  Sixpence, established in 2006 through the creation of a $60 million public-private endowment, was designed to provide sustainable funding for quality programs statewide through a competitive grant process.  Sixpence grants are made directly to school districts representing multiple local partners, and are held to a rigorous quality evaluation process conducted by the Munroe-Meyer Institute of the University of Nebraska.  Confidence in Sixpence as an evidence-based, high accountability model was reflected in a marathon hearing before the Nebraska Appropriations Committee, during which representatives of Nebraska’s Early Childhood Business Roundtable, retired military, public school superintendents, pediatricians, and families turned out to testify in support of the program.  The successful passage of LB 190 and LB 495 brought an $11 million infusion into the Sixpence cash fund over the next three years, expanding existing services and jumpstarting new programs to serve at-risk children in 18 locations throughout the state.

Nebraska consistently ranks as one of the top five states in the nation with all available parents in the workforce, a fact that makes safe, developmentally positive and responsible licensed child care a necessity.  For providers, part of meeting that responsibility should include carrying sufficient liability insurance to protect children in care, as well as their families and the providers themselves.   LB 105 passed unanimously requiring providers to carry at least $100,000 of liability coverage per occurrence in order to meet the terms of licensure. 

Children’s safety is a non-negotiable aspect of out-of-home care, but it is also just one element of what we should expect from programs, especially those which are publicly funded to serve our youngest at-risk children.  Nebraska took a large step forward in this respect by passing LB 507, which implements a quality rating improvement system (QRIS) for providers who receive the greatest share of reimbursements from Nebraska’s child care subsidy.  Nebraska spends $95 million annually on publicly funded childcare, much of which currently supports programs that do not go beyond the most basic requirements for licensure.  The QRIS puts in place a new measure of accountability and oversight for those funds, and creates a mechanism for providers to sharpen their own business practices, provide opportunities for the professional growth of their staff, and foster programs that aim for a higher standard in early childhood development.  Just as importantly, quality ratings supply a powerful market incentive for providers to continually strive to improve their programs to meet the demands of parents who make more informed decisions about the care they select for their children.             

Two bills discussed by the Legislature focused on increasing parental competence as caregivers and educators of their youngest children in different ways.  LB 234 provided a combined $500,000 of additional funding for nurse visitation services over the next two fiscal years.  In-home visitation programs are demonstrably effective at reducing incidence of child maltreatment, and provide a mechanism for coaching parents in positive caregiving techniques.  While home visitation services such as those provided through LB234 do much to increase parental knowledge and confidence as caregivers, other at-risk children and families face additional obstacles.  LB 483 addressed an often-overlooked segment of this population by funding a pilot parent education program for incarcerated mothers and fathers.  The program instructs parents on early literacy development and caregiving skills to better enable them to support their children’s early development and facilitate successful, family-focused re-entry programs.

Jim Krieger, Gallup CFO and Nebraska Early Childhood Business Roundtable chairman, summarized the overall wave of support that carried all of these bills forward throughout the legislative session during his testimony on LB 190.  “Clearly, the most efficient, accountable, and highest return on investment occurs in the first five years,” he said.  “It will produce the workforce we need while reducing other demands on our tax dollars such as grade repetition, special education costs, workforce training, welfare and incarceration… As Appropriations Committee members, you’re asked to consider a lot of worthwhile endeavors.  But I challenge you to find one that can produce such a high rate of return for such a relatively modest level of expenditure.”

Jen Goettemoeller, Senior Policy Associate, First Five Nebraska (October 10,2013)