“We see this as a critical economic issue: we cannot, as states, have the kind of workforce we need if we have children starting out so far behind and never being able to catch up.”
Interview with Elizabeth Burke Bryant
Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Elizabeth Burke Bryant is Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, a children’s policy and research organization founded in 1994 that provides information on child well-being, stimulates dialogue on children’s issues, and promotes accountability and action.
Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?
Elizabeth: I started my career in early learning at the same time I began my career in child advocacy over 20 years ago. I was fortunate to be the first executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count. Right from the very beginning of our work to establish a child advocacy organization in Rhode Island, I knew that investments in early learning and early childhood development were the most cost-effective investments states could make along with access to health insurance, child abuse and neglect, and juvenile justice. Early childhood issues and early learning is at the core of our work and have been ever since Rhode Island Kids Count got started.
Steven: What do you see as the role of state advocates in improving the quality of early learning?
Elizabeth: Well, one of the things I’m privileged to be doing right now is that along with Cecilia Zalkind, the Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, my New Jersey counterpart, we have received some logistical support from the Alliance for Early Success to form an ad-hoc group of state-based early learning advocates. We actually got going just at the time President Obama gave a very impassioned speech about the importance of early learning and there were opportunities coming up with the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and others, and the Preschool Development Grants were fortunately right around the corner. We just felt there was a missing element to federal policy development on early learning, which was that we really needed state-based advocates that are used to working with their partners in state government to launch and grow early learning programs at the state level to really help inform new, exciting federal opportunities in early learning and share a taste of what was going on at the state level – so really a two-way communication channel. We started regular phone calls with state-based advocates around the country to do just that and its worked really, really well.
We appreciate the Alliance for Early Success for bringing us all together but it’s been a real peer to peer learning and strategizing opportunity and what we have found are practical lessons learned from states that have been at the forefront of starting state pre-k programs with governors and legislative leaders. We really have a lot of lessons learned as we try to expand early learning through federal opportunities. We really see that state and federal partnerships are the only way to ensure that many more of our low-income children have access to high-quality preschool in the years before kindergarten.
Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality preschool for all four-year olds important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?
Elizabeth: First, it’s incredibly important that the President has identified this as a very urgent issue for our country. I think there are some people who believe the job is done, that children have access to preschool but we know in our states and states across the country that huge numbers of children especially low-income children and children with high needs are completely left out and are never in a high-quality early learning program until they enter kindergarten and that puts them even further behind their more advantaged peers. The President – using his incredible bully pulpit to focus like a laser-beam on this issue – was so important and continues to be so important and I think that governors around the country really understand the importance. They’ve been leading the way with very little other than sometimes beleaguered state budgets to put the pieces together for state pre-k programs.
Having the pulpit of the Presidency to focus like a laser beam on it really helps state legislative leaders and governors. We know that there are ways to partner with the federal government of which we always had partnerships with, head start as well. It’s been interesting to see a lot of the ways that – thanks to Preschool Expansion and Development Grants – we have been seeing great partnerships between Child Care and Head Start and public schools. We think the President’s leadership was really important in focusing a lot of needed attention. We see this as a critical economic issue: we cannot, as states, have the kind of workforce we need if we have children starting out so far behind and never being able to catch up. I know in our state, our state leaders – Governor Raimondo, Senate President Paiva Weed, and Speaker Mattiello – all see early childhood education as a core part of Rhode Island’s economic strategy. Having the President put so much attention on this issue has been a way to raise the visibility of this issue and the sense of urgency to serve more children faster.