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Early Childhood Gets What It Needs: A Star Supporter

Hillary Clinton is making some news today. And while it’s not about whether she’ll run for president, it’s about an idea she's likely to embrace if she does: improving early childhood care and education. And that's good for the cause, no matter who becomes president in 2016.

In an announcement being billed as Clinton’s first project since leaving the government, the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the California-based Next Generation organization are undertaking a campaign called “Too Small to Fail.” The campaign seeks to bolster and publicize research on early childhood, and to make sure early childhood stays on the national agenda. It will be a multi-million dollar effort that will continue for at least five years, according to Matt James, president and co-founder of Next Generation. The co-sponsoring organizations are presenting Clinton’s announcement, via an online video, as a “launch,” although a slightly less focused version of the project (which Next Generation was running on its own) has been underway for several months.

If you watch the Clinton video, you’ll notice two things. The first is its reliance on, and hyping of, the latest science about brain development. The video features, among other people, Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard University pediatrician and researcher whom New Republic readers may recognize from the article, “The Two Year Window.” Shonkoff chairs the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and is one of a handful of key researchers who have developed and publicized the concept of “toxic stress”—the idea that adverse experiences in very early childhood can alter brain development in ways that are very difficult to reverse, putting kids at much greater risk of intellectual, emotional, and cognitive problems later in life. Citing that research, Shonkoff and his many collaborators have been on a crusade to reduce (and, ideally, eliminate) the number of children subject to such conditions. 

The other thing you’ll notice about the video is that it focuses heavily on what takes place in the home and at the workplace. It’s all about helping parents make sure their kids get the care they need, whether by reaching parents directly or encouraging employers to create workplaces in which parents have the flexibility to spend more time with their kids. This isn’t surprising—it’s entirely consistent with the focus on private sector activity that the Clinton Global Initiative has taken in its projects. But a project like this doesn’t have to focus explicitly on public policy to have an effect.

Four months ago, in the State of the Union, President Obama proposed a universal pre-kindergarten program that would make sure the children of working parents have supportive, stimulating care while their mothers and fathers are on the job. A particular focus (although not the only focus) of the initiative is children from low-income families in which, for one reason or another, kids are less likely to get the support they need. But while Obama’s budget allocated $75 billion for the initiative, Congress has not shown tremendous interest. And although that might change once it comes time to hammer out the next spending deal, the prospects for a large investment in early childhood this year seem pretty slim. One reason is that the issue of early childhood simply isn’t getting a lot of political attention, even though the lack of decent day care—let alone the kind that equips kids with skills—is a problem for literally millions of American families.

Clinton’s focus on these issues obviously can’t change that single-handedly. But it can make a difference—particularly since it’s an issue that’s been on her radar screen for longer than most people realize. “Hillary has been a long-time champion of these issues, working on them in Arkansas, in the White House when she was First Lady and as a Senator,” says Neera Tanden, the longtime Clinton adviser who is now president of the Center for American Progress. “As she discusses these issues with the private sector, raises awareness with families and communities across the country, I hope a light will switch on with policy makers—they'll see that dramatically increasing our investment in early learning and universal pre-k are no brainers.” It might sound wistful, but that's how causes like this succeed—with long, sustained efforts to build public support.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenCohn

Update: I originally referred to Next Generation as a foundation. It's actually a non-profit, 501c(3) organization.