Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

J.B. Pritzker is best known as a Chicago-based venture capitalist and philanthropist. He has also donated millions of dollars to early education. But this fall, Pritzker is sporting a new job title: early education policy wonk.

Pritzker has co-authored a paper, with the nonprofit Bridgespan Group, called “Achieving Kindergarten Readiness for All Our Children: A Funder’s Guide to Early Childhood Development from Birth to Five.”

In the paper, Pritzker and his co-authors point to the vast unmet need for high-quality early education and care — and they argue that philanthropists can play a key role.

As a related fact sheet explains, “Remarkably, 1 in 4 American children come from low-income families and enter kindergarten not ready to learn.” And, “50% of all low-income children from birth to 5 are at risk of not being fully prepared for kindergarten.”

In the report’s foreword, Pritzker and his wife Mary Kathryn explain that while “pioneer investors and communities have seeded the field with experiments that have proven to have significant impact on child outcomes… we vastly underinvest in early childhood education. Annual philanthropic funding for birth to five is only a fifth of what is spent on K–12 education, and annual per capita government spending on early care and education is only a quarter of K–12 levels.”

While these statistics are daunting, they do create a compelling opportunity for philanthropists.

“Philanthropy will never have the resources to invest in early childhood that government does,” the report notes. “But what we in philanthropy can and must do is to highlight and demonstrate what works to improve kindergarten readiness for low-income children in a way that will encourage local, state, and federal policy change—and smarter public investments in early childhood.”

With this vision of leadership in mind, the report asks: “What are the most effective investments philanthropy can make?”

The paper answers by pointing to five broad categories of need and 13 concrete opportunities for investments. The five categories are:

• strengthening public systems of early education and care to ensure continuous quality improvements

• scaling up health and developmental screenings to better connect families to resources that promote children’s development

 improving the training, continuing education, professional development, and compensation of early childhood educators

 supporting greater access to high-quality, evidence-based programs that help parents foster their children’s development, and

 promoting program innovations and improvements, especially for programs that support parents and informal caregivers

The concrete philanthropic opportunities include:

 providing technical assistance for states to accelerate improvements in quality

 funding training for providers pursuing quality improvements

 supporting pediatric practices that integrate screenings and referrals into well-child visits

 increasing on-the-job coaching and development for early childhood educators

 funding research and technical assistance that promotes fair compensation of early educators

 simplifying and sharing information that helps parents choose high-quality programs for their children, and

 fostering innovation to achieve results that can be repeated

An article from Inside Philanthropy points to the larger questions about early childhood education (ECE) that fuel the report:

“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.”

The report itself concludes:

“…we have tried to highlight both the importance of promoting kindergarten readiness for our nation’s children and the variety of opportunities available to donors who want to invest wisely towards this end. It is our hope that this paper will help reverse the pattern of systematic underinvestment by surfacing tangible high-impact opportunities that private philanthropists and their public-sector partners can pursue today.”