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Rural, urban Nebraskans support early childhood education, worry about future for kids
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Rural, urban Nebraskans support early childhood education, worry about future for kids

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While most Nebraskans agree the state should make a greater investment in early childhood education, rural residents are more worried than their urban counterparts about finding quality day care, while city dwellers are more concerned about cost.

Still, urban and rural Nebraskans share many of the same opinions about early childhood education, according to a report released Friday by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

The uniform desire across the state to invest in early childhood education was striking to Sam Meisels, executive director of the Buffett Institute at the University of Nebraska.

“I believe as a researcher and a scholar in this area if we can enhance and increase our investment in our children they will have a better future,” he said. “What we were hearing here is not from the scientific point of view, but consensus that the state needs to enhance its investment in young children.’’

The report, “Urban and Rural Nebraskans Speak About Early Care and Education,” is the third of four reports based on a statewide survey of 7,100 Nebraskans conducted by Gallup and the Buffett Institute.

Two-thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed the state should make early childhood education a priority, with slightly more support in urban areas (67 percent), than rural (65 percent).

And, while eight out of 10 people think the state is a good place for children — 88 percent in rural Nebraska and 79 percent in urban areas — they’re significantly more pessimistic about the future.

Rural residents feel more strongly than those in urban areas that life for the state’s children has gotten worse over the past decade (72 percent to 66 percent). Just 8 percent of urban residents and 11 percent in rural areas feel strongly that Nebraska children are prepared for kindergarten. Only 6 percent across the state believe that’s true for children of low-income families.

Meisels said the economy is largely to blame, and civic leaders need to respond.

“While parents feel they can care for their children and do a good job of it, they have concerns for what the future holds for their children,” he said. “To me, this is something of a call. A call to action on behalf of our children.”

Child care is connected to the economy in a number of ways, including as a driver of economic development in small communities, Meisels said. For instance, if there’s no licensed child care in small towns, families with children may not be able to stay there.

The survey-based reports are an effort by the Buffett Institute to bring early childhood education to the forefront of Nebraska policy, community development and social justice discussions and lend statistical information to the debate.

The survey, mailed in English and Spanish to 28,000 homes in August 2015, was the largest public-opinion poll conducted about early childhood education in the state.

The first report, released last March, showed 68 percent of respondents support early childhood care and education, but just 15 percent are satisfied with the quality of child care programs in their communities. The second report looked at the respondents’ views on the child care workforce, and the fourth will examine parents’ perspectives.

The latest report divided respondents into three categories: communities with an urban core (Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties), 11 counties with a large rural town, and those with populations of less than 10,000.

Among the differences between rural and urban residents: how hard it is to find high-quality care.

Overall, just 10 percent of respondents found that to be the biggest challenge, but it was a bigger concern to rural residents (14 percent) than urban and large-town residents (9 percent).

Meisels said that’s not surprising, given that 11 percent of Nebraska’s counties have no licensed day care and 84 percent of the counties with child care facilities don’t have enough spots available.

Meisels said the solutions are likely to be different in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, it could involve a network of home-based care, with planning and support for those caregivers.

“Being in home-based child care doesn’t mean it can’t be excellent care,” he said.

Kathleen Gallagher, professor and Williams Community Chair for Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the Buffett Institute, said building infrastructure to help rural communities is important to support children and young families.

“Government can’t pay the whole cost, families can't pay the whole cost, teachers (through low pay) can’t pay the whole cost,” she said. “We have to look creatively at funding and mindfully at quality.”

More urban residents — 44 percent — felt that early child care costs were the biggest challenge, compared with 23 percent of rural residents and 28 percent of residents in large rural towns.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion in Scottsbluff on Friday, said during a series of meetings last summer in Lincoln, Kearney and Scottsbluff it became clear that there needs to be a unified vision about early childhood education.

Stinner says that may involve developing curriculum that can be used by people across the state involved in early childhood education.

“There was a total acknowledgement that something needs to be done at the state level, from the Department of Education,” he said. “Then we need to find a funding source that would supply whatever is needed.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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