Coalitions – A Key to Increasing Options in Early Education

Indiana and Kentucky have very different early education systems, but a Midwestern collaborative spirit is driving change in both states. 

Although the calendar tells us it is winter, many of our states are feeling the heat. Human capital has a very strong bearing on local economic strength, and education is a prime lever in ratcheting up quality of human capital. Logic points to building a strong foundation at the entry point of our education systems and even renowned economists harp on the “return on investment” provided by the focus on employing high quality early care and education. These factors, among others, combine to create the heat many states are feeling in regards to education.

INKYIt’s been lukewarm here in the Midwest but the temperature is rising, even though it’s winter. In my previous work, I have worked closely with Kentucky’s Governor’s Office of Early Childhood (KYGOEC). Today, I am working closely with Indiana’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning (OECOSL) within the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA). Both of these offices are critical for advancing statewide early childhood progress and putting forth an even better vision for the future. As both states make great strides to bolster a growing and desperately needed early childhood system, I want to take a moment to highlight leading assets in both states and the invaluable learning I’ve received after several years of working in both.

To improve their early childhood landscape, most states are taking inventory of their counties’ early childhood capacity (with emphasis on high quality). Nine regional CCR&Rs have led the way in Indiana, and the Early Childhood Profiles from KYGOEC have led the way for Kentucky. As expected, some counties and regions in each state are further along in their focus on early childhood. Promising coalitions throughout each state are driving progress but both their strategies and progress vary greatly in Indiana and Kentucky.

In an era when few states allot significant funding to early childhood (an era I hope we’re quickly leaving), I’ve learned that community coalitions play a key role in building early education infrastructure and achieving critical outcomes. Large child care resource and referral agencies along with philanthropic organizations (i.e. United Way of Central Indiana, Metro United Way and United Way of Kentucky, et al) are operating at the core of these coalitions in both Indiana and Kentucky and both need increased involvement from public school districts for greater sustainability. County-level early childhood progress in Kentucky is driven by the Community Early Childhood Councils; most counties in the state have a council, which are centrally managed by KYGOEC. Meanwhile, in Indiana, county-level and regional progress has been driven by CCR&Rs with a welcomed push from state-focused groups (i.e. Partnerships for Early Learners of Early Learning Indiana, the Indiana Association of United Ways and Indiana’s Early Learning Advisory Committee) fortifying existing coalitions and collaborating to galvanize new ones in counties where conditions are right.

Coalitions are the most popular, emerging way to make large scale change for greater focus and coordination on ECE. I feel the main ingredient of their potency is strong partnership. Partnerships allow organizations and institutions align important goals and commit time, treasure and talent to achieve those goals – often leveraging limited funds to great ends. States like Kentucky and Indiana have successful, mature programs but receive a fraction of the public funding they need to make a significant impact. As long as this is the case, communities will need to come together, determine their own goals, and align all resources at their disposal to reach those goals. The strong partnerships that have been forged in the past few years make the near future for many regions in these states much more promising.

These current and emerging coalitions are making a change for the better, so I’d recommend that everyone keep tabs on how things improve in the early childhood realm in the heart of the Midwest. I hope the easiest way to track these changes is how well the youngest citizens of Kentucky and Indiana (0-8 year-olds) do three to five years from now — and then from the year 2020 on. Another easy way, is to gauge the heat that state education systems feel and if activity in the early childhood sector is effective enough to keep cooler, more seasonal and temperate climes.

Kofi Darku is Partnerships for Early Learners’ Director of Statewide Outreach. Kofi has 15 years of experience in education, primarily in early childhood, which supports his work expanding access to high-quality early childhood opportunities in Indiana.