The Billionaire Urging Philanthropy to Make Early Education a (Much) Bigger Priority

J.B. Pritzker of The Prtizker Children's InitiativeWith the Urban Institute's Kids' Share report on the coming decade of underfunding for children fresh on my mind—including projections that funding for children will drop from 10 percent of the federal budget to 8 percent by 2025—it seemed like a perfect time to talk to a billionaire who has funding for preschool on his mind, as well. 

That would be J. B. Pritzker, one of philanthropy's biggest names in early childhood education funding, who is more than a little concerned about the future of funding for ECE. I talked with him recently about a white paper he co-authored in conjunction with Jeffrey L. Bradach and Katherine Kaufmann called Achieving Kindergarten Readiness for All Our Children: A Funder’s Guide to Early Childhood Development from Birth to Five. The aim here is to move ECE to the top of philanthropy's agenda—and hopefully the nation's, too. 

The paper provides some sobering statistics about why early childhood education needs to be more of a national priority. One out of every four children entering kindergarten is low-income and unprepared to learn, and therefore behind the starting line to get a good K-12 education. Pritzker and his co-authors believe that philanthropy can and should play a key role in changing those grim statistics, and they've presented a detailed menu of options for how funders can join this fight. 

With an estimated net worth of $3.4 billion, J.B. Pritzker is both a venture capitalist and a heavyweight in the early childhood education funding arena. He's long worked this issue, most notably by underwriting the Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development at the University of Chicago and bankrolling the startup of the First Five Years Fund, the top advocacy group pushing early ed in Washington, D.C. Late last year, Pritzker and wife M.K. Pritzker put up $25 million to advance ECE. 

Related:Which Pritzker Just Kicked In $25M For Early Childhood Education?

When Pritzker announced that large gift, he asserted that early education had been ignored by philanthropy. Pritzker wants to change that, and he and his co-authors have put together a compelling case regarding where philanthropic dollars can make a big difference—particularly when it comes to "demonstrating what works and encouraging government at all levels to make smarter and more cost-effective investments."

Pritzker started our conversation by asking a pointed question: "Why isn't philanthropy more engaged in ECE? What are the impediments to getting funders more involved?"

Pritzker has two important approaches to this question, both of which he sees as solvable problems that he and his team are working on. "First is, many philanthropists are just unaware," said Pritzker. "It is not among the first three things that new philanthropists think of when they think, 'What can I do to make the world a better place?' And it should be. So this is a failure of communication, and we can do better."

Second, Pritzker is aiming to convert more K-12 funders into ECE funders. He thinks K-12 investors are undermining themselves by not investing more in ECE. "They haven't seen ECE as an arrow in their quiver. They're focused on third grade reading levels or high school graduation rates or getting kids to college, but we know that early childhood programs work, and pay off." So Pritzker sees helping K-12 funders understand the role of ECE as another solvable communication issue within philanthropy.

Related:Last Year Was Big For Early Childhood Education Funding. What Lies Ahead for 2015?

Pritzker talked from experience as a parent of preschoolers, recalling parent-teacher conferences for his children where he learned about their educational progress—what they were doing well, and what areas needed focus for improvement. He sees this kind of engagement with all parents as critical to the future of education in our country. "We need to have a standard that we want to hit for every child, and we need to provide different kids with different forms of engagement in order to get them ready for kindergarten."

The new report is a collaboration of the Bridgespan Group and the Pritzker Children's Initiative, so Katherine Kauffman, one of the co-authors for the white paper from the Bridgespan Group, also joined the call. Kauffman spoke about how philanthropy for early childhood education represents both "an enormous opportunity and also a great need." 

Kauffman got into more detail with Opportunity No. 7 in the white paper, which calls for better pay for early childhood educators. "The stressors facing the early childhood workforce are immense," she said. "We underpay them, we do not invest in their professional development," she continued, naming ways in which ECE is given short shrift compared to K-12 education. "So there's a huge opportunity here."

The need for outreach to informal caregivers for young children is also an opportunity for philanthropy discussed in the paper. Kauffman stressed the need to develop initiatives that work with informal caregivers—the large numbers of friends, family, and neighbors (FFN) who provide care for young children.

"That's going to be critical," Kauffman said, and she stressed that this is an area requiring more innovation and program development. The report details how little is known about FFN caregiving for children ages 0–5, and finding ways to improve this area of caregiving is another opportunity that Pritzker and Bridgespan want to see private philanthropy support. 

Kauffman also talked about the need for more public funding to support parents of young children. "We already know of a number of interventions that work with parents of infants and toddlers, like the Nurse Family Partnership and other infant home-visiting programs, but these programs operate at radically subscale numbers of 1 or 2 percent of the actual need." Investing in these programs is critical, says Kauffman, to making headway with early childhood education.

Pritzker returned the conversation to one of his specialties: the venture capital business argument. Pritzker sees investment in early childhood education as an investment in social good. "In philanthropy, when you are trying to get the maximum social good for the dollars being put forward, you can't get much better than early childhood education. The return is so good when you really look at the numbers."

Kauffman also emphasized that there are many entry points for philanthropists who want to support ECE. "On the national, regional, and local level, in the form of systems change or dollars for specific direct service interventions, there is a place for every kind of philanthropist here," she said. 

Finally, Pritzker had this to say about what kind of value early childhood education adds to the kindergarten classroom mix. "If you go talk to a kindergarten teacher, they'll tell you, 'I know which kids had early childhood education.'  The teachers can tell the difference on day one, just walking in the classroom and having one day of school. If it's that obvious, then we really ought to step up and fund early childhood education," said Pritzker.

He did acknowledge that without a stronger government role, this work won't stand a chance of reaching its maximum impact. "If it's philanthropists doing it for now, even if it's only a fraction of what the public treasury can do, we can show the way," said Pritzker.

Related: Meet the Funders Behind the FirstFiveYearsFund