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Nebraskans agree: State falls short in meeting needs of its youngest citizens
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Nebraskans agree: State falls short in meeting needs of its youngest citizens

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Seven out of 10 Nebraskans agree: The first eight years of a child’s life are critical to future success.

But only a dismal two of 10 think the state is doing enough to meet the needs of its youngest residents in the most formative years of their life -- when they acquire language skills, form relationships for the first time, build character and develop cognitive skills.

The majority of Nebraskans say early childhood care and education are neither available nor affordable to every family in the state -- but they should be.

These are the findings from a statewide survey conducted by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and Gallup.

The results, set to be released Tuesday morning, kick off an effort to bring early childhood care and education to the forefront of Nebraska policy, community development and social justice discussions.

Founded in 2013, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute focuses on the first eight years of children’s lives, and what can be done to ensure all of Nebraska’s young children, particularly those living in poverty, or with families in need or who have developmental challenges, can start school ready and able to learn.

National research studies show that crucial brain development key in preparing a child for school, social/emotional development and behaviors occurs between birth and the end of third grade. Kids in poverty, in disadvantaged families and those with developmental challenges often miss out on the opportunities and experiences afforded to their more financially secure and socially stable peers.

With 42 percent of Nebraska children growing up in poverty, that’s a huge number of kids starting life at a major disadvantage, according to Sam Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

The institute’s goal is not only to level the playing field, but raise it for all children through statewide partnerships between universities, schools, governments, businesses and citizens. The aim is to eliminate the achievement gap among children and better prepare the workforce of educators, childcare providers and those who teach them, Meisels said.

“The survey was the first step to understanding the attitudes and beliefs that everyone can invest in,” he said.

It provided statistical -- and less anecdotal evidence -- to the decades old early childhood debate.

More than 7,100 people responded to the survey, which was mailed in English and Spanish languages to 28,000 homes across Nebraska this past August.

It is the largest public opinion poll conducted about early childhood care and education in the state and the 25 percent response rate is practically unprecedented in the world of survey taking, Meisels said.

“Decades of research have demonstrated what happens to children during the critically important early years impacts not only their future success, but also the future economic strength and well-being of our communities and our state,” Meisels said.

“Now Nebraskans have spoken. They get it, they support it, and they want to see greater investment in early childhood programs across the state.”

The survey looked at all the programs affecting young children, he said.

Findings were weighted to match state demographics regarding gender, age, education, race and Hispanic ethnicity, to give an accurate view representing all Nebraskans, said Iheoma Iruka, director of research and evaluation for the Buffett Institute.

The survey found 68 percent of Nebraskans recognize the importance of the first years of life, but that they have serious concerns, Meisels said.

“Only 1 percent of people said that all children in Nebraska receive quality care,” he said.

Fifty-eight percent said the state is doing too little for early care and education. Just 6 percent said it is doing too much.

“Just one-third believe that children are adequately prepared for formal schooling at kindergarten,” he said.

And “prepared” does not mean knowing their ABCs, how to count to 10, or even how to tie their shoes, Meisels said.

“It means confidence as a 5-year-old for being in a learning environment with other children and an adequate ability to take in information and use that information,” he said.

The survey also found that Nebraskans are willing to invest in quality early care and education -- ranking it second in the state’s educational priorities. Public schools K-12 ranked first.

While the survey did not specifically ask about taxes, it did touch on funding.

The bottom line:

“The vast majority said they want a combination of taxes, private funding and community/business support,” Iruka said. “They see it as a community problem that requires all of us to lift at least a part of it.”

Meisels agreed, Nebraska needs a multifaceted approach to early care and education.

“The cliche of ‘it takes a village’ is really true,” he said. “It is going to take everyone.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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