“I think that is one of the most important elements of this is not saying that access is more important, saying that access to quality is what we are trying to achieve.”
Interview with Katherine (Katy) Beh Neas
Vice President, Government Relations
Easterseals Office of Public Affairs (National & Washington, D.C.)
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Katy Beh Neas monitors and analyzes federal legislation and regulations affecting children with disabilities and their families, particularly in the areas of autism, early intervention, early childhood education, special education and budget and appropriations. Neas leads efforts to develop and achieve Easterseals’ public policy goals for federal, state and local government. Neas has been a member of Easterseals’ Government Relations team since January 1995. She has served as one of five co-chairs of the Education Task Force of the national disability coalition, Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, since 1996, and oversees the advocacy efforts of the 50 organizations that volunteer on the task force.
Steven: How did you begin your career in support of children with disabilities and early learning in inclusive settings?
Katy: I started my career in the field as a young Senate staffer working for Tom Harkin on the subcommittee on disability policy working on the original ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. And to me, one of the whole elements of what was going to make the ADA the most meaningful was if little kids had high-quality, inclusive early education experiences, so that you had both kids with and kids without disabilities growing up together from their very first days. We had the promise of this incredibly needed and powerful civil rights law. But the practical reality of how was this law going to make a difference would be if it started when kids were really young.
Steven: What do you see as the role of non-profits and advocates in improving the quality of early learning programs?
Katy: I think for us at Easterseals, the government provides a really powerful foundation for early learning whether it is Head Start or home visiting or child care. And non-profits and bringing philanthropic dollars helps build on the foundation the government provides so that you can add more quality. Because you have access to some additional resources, your teachers can have more training. And you can just be more innovative because you have a little more flexibility in how you’re spending your money. And I think that’s where the non-profit world really can and needs to make a difference. The other thing I think a non-profit world helps is, because we are always trying to piece funding together, we may be able to create partnerships and alignments in a way that’s easier than government by itself or public institutions by themselves. So I see non-profits playing a role both in innovation in how you pay for quality but also innovation in bringing like-minded people together in a different space.
Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning programs important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and some of the opportunities, particularly as it may relate to equity?
Katy: I am the parent of a now 17-year-old and I remember putting Maria on a waiting list before she was born at an Easterseals inclusive program. And even with my role at the organization I was still worried about what happens if they don’t have space for her. And this whole notion of access and quality has to be, and I think that is what the President is really trying to push with the Early Learning Initiative, is that it is not one or the other, that you’ve got to have both. I think that is one of the most important elements of this is not saying that access is more important, saying that access to quality is what we are trying to achieve. I think the challenge is how do regular working families pay for high quality education. When an infant care is $1,800 to $2,000 a month, most people will never be able to afford that. We’ve got to figure out a better way to finance early education so that it isn’t just parent fees where we are finding the best way or the only way to deliver this kind of service. If you think about what our priorities are for making sure kids to go to college and how parents have been saving for college since kids were babies and then having the realization they have to spend all that money for child care, for early education, it’s a real problem.
I think access to quality and access to quality services are what we want. And how we are going to pay for it continues to be a huge challenge. Now I am pleased that both of the candidates are at least recognizing the role of early education for families. So I think that’s great, but the other thing I would say is if I was king we would have universal early Head Start and universal Head Start where every kid would have access to that and the wrap around services that come through the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] special education programs, the wrap around services that come with home visiting, and the wrap around services that come from maternal child health. All those things would be available to families and any family that wanted to have a high-quality education experience for their young child wouldn’t have to worry about how they are going to pay for it.
It’s penny wise and mind foolish the way we fund education. We’ve worked all these years to try and get more money for IDEA and the K-12 piece to it. But if we really invested in early education the way we should, we’d have fewer kids who are going to need special education, we’d have fewer kids that didn’t know how to get along with their peers, we’d have fewer kids with all sorts of issues, and more empowered parents who know how to support their child and advocate for what they need. So there are only good reasons why we should be investing more in early education.