A panel of conservative and liberal education experts agreed Monday night at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood that tax dollars invested in early childhood programs pay better dividends than trying to catch up after children fall behind in school.
"It's some of the best investments we can make with our taxpayer dollars, early on," said state Sen.-elect Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood who has chaired the House Education Committee and the state Early Childhood Readiness Commission.
After two conservative experts spoke on early childhood care and education policy as part of the Centennial Institute's Distinguished Lecture Series, Pettersen talked about some of the solutions that have been tried and failed in a divided legislature the last four years, including family paid leave.
When the next session begins on Jan. 4, Democrats retain the House, take the majority in the Senate and have an education ally in the governor's office. Democrat Jared Polis campaigned on a pledge of providing free universal preschool, paid for partly by the savings from children not having to repeat grades or fall into remedial programs.
Pettersen is hoping for ideas that flow from the right and left on early childhood and working families, however.
"I know there are plenty of people who care deeply about this on both sides of the aisle," Pettersen said of closing the achievement gap for children. "So I feel confident we're going to get some good things done."
But the venue was Colorado Christian University, so a question from the audience advocated changing the culture around single-parent families, which brought quick agreement from Katharine Stevens, who leads the early childhood program for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Nadine Maenza, the executive director of of the conservative Patriot Voices.
Stevens said children need resources -- especially time and money -- to thrive, and two-parent families are better equipped for that. It's not about judgment, but statistics, Maenza added.
Pettersen took the conversation in another direction: access to birth control.
"Most women would not choose to be single moms," she said. "That's why making sure they're able to choose when and if they want to have a child is a real critical piece; you can have a child when you know it's the right time for you."
Stevens said public policy around fixing education often ignores children's earliest years.
"A dollar spent earlier in the lifetime has a greater financial return in terms of (later) workforce productivity," she said, explaining that early investments increase the value of education as students age because learning is a cumulative skill.
She said the first 1,000 days of a child's development shapes the ensuing life to a greater extent than previously believed. Achievement gaps emerge beginning as young as 9 months old "and those gaps continue to widen, leaving children up to two years behind by age 5," Stevens said.
"We all know good schools are critical, and that's especially true in the youngest grades," Stevens said. "But a growing body of research is suggesting that we may be looking for solutions at the wrong time and in the wrong place."
Maenza leads Patriot Voices' emphasis on policies that help working families, such as paid family leave and the child tax credit.
She said conservatives have been willing to let Democrats lead on family issues "when really this fits right in our portfolio of issues and something we should be leading on."