This Philanthropic Partnership Takes a Brainy Approach to Early Ed — and Backs Movement Building

On May 9, early care educators from New Haven, Connecticut to Oxnard, California, shut their doors and joined protests to mark A Day Without Childcare. Early educators, parents and other supporters gathered in 27 states and Washington, DC, to demand greater public investment in early childhood education. the goal? To make early care more affordable for families and to provide early educators a living wage and benefits.

This is also the mission of the Trust for Learning, a national philanthropic partnership that focuses on expanding access to high-quality early childhood programs for low-income children and communities of color. It’s a goal most early childhood education (ECE) funders shared even before the pandemic, which simultaneously highlighted and exacerbated the existing child care crisis.

There are a lot of education-focused collaboratives out there, but one thing that sets Trust for Learning apart is that its partner list doesn’t include the usual, prominent ed funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or WK Kellogg. Instead, it works with a lineup of small family foundations with far less familiar names.

The McCall Kulak Family Foundation, for example, was a founding member of the trust. The Brady Education Foundation prioritizes research and is focused on efforts to close the education achievement gap. The Prepared Adult Initiative, another partner, supports a range of efforts “to foster the development of as many prepared adults as possible — people with empathy, creativity and ability to face complex challenges,” according to its website. The Wend Collective, created by Walton heir James M. Walton, is another partner. As IP has written, Wend keeps an intentionally low profile, but Ellen Roche, Trust for Learning’s executive director, calls James Walton and his team “core partners in this work. They are amazing.”

Several long-term ECE funders have teamed up with the Trust for Learning on specific projects, including the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Stranahan Foundation. (See complete list of partners here.)

“Our funds are a mix of private, mostly smaller family foundations,” said Roche. “It’s a real mix, and what I’ve found as I’ve met new partners over the years is that there is an immediate meeting of the minds. It’s like, ‘I’ve been looking for a group like this because I have this vision of what early childhood education could be. Hooray, I’ve found my people! Let’s do this!’”

All roads lead to early childhood

Ellen Roche has worked as a teacher, but also on campaigns fighting climate change and promoting civil rights and racial justice. Since she started at the Trust for Learning three and a half years ago, she has come to believe that “all roads lead to early childhood.”

While it might be more accurate to say that all roads begin in early childhood, Roche’s point is that without providing access to quality early care for all children, we’ll never achieve education equity, racial justice, or enjoy a thriving society that provides equal opportunity for everyone. It’s a conclusion shared by the latest brain science research and economists like James Heckman; it was also the impetus that led to the creation of the Trust for Learning in the first place.

The idea for the organization germinated 11 years ago in conversations between two mothers who had small family foundations. Marianna Kulak McCall headed the McCall Kulak Family Foundation, and Laurie McTeague led the McTeague Catalyst Fund. Both women also had small children who attended early education programs. McCall and McTeague noticed that pitches they were receiving as funds — proposals for early childhood programs for low-income kids and children of color — looked very different than the programs their own children attended.

“It was that gap that made them start to wonder why other kids weren’t getting access to this kind of child-centered, developmentally appropriate early childhood program,” Roche said. “They wondered, ‘why aren’t kids in Head Start and public Pre-K programs getting access to this, too?’ So the trust grew out of that gap.”

Closing the gap

Eleven years later, the Trust for Learning continues to focus squarely on that divide. “We know that these incredible early childhood models exist,” Roche said. “Many of them have been refined over decades — in some cases, more than a century. But they’ve been relegated to the private sector. And we want to support kids who are facing poverty, kids of color, multilingual kids, kids with disabilities, through publicly funded programs.”

The goal sounds simple; making it happen is anything but, since it requires deep, systemic changes. The organization takes a brainy approach to early childhood education, convening and consulting experts and supporting research and programs that have demonstrated success. The trust developed and refined nine principles of ideal learning environments in consultation with experts, parents and others. Using the ideal learning framework, they work with Head Start and other early learning programs to implement this approach. In Colorado, for example, where the state recently expanded its funding for early care, the trust is working with a local organization Early Milestones Colorado to include the ideal learning approach in public early care programs.

While quality of care is a primary focus, the Trust for Learning also works with partners to shape policy at the local, state and national levels. But Ellen Roche believes that philanthropy should support those closest to the issues and follow their lead. She was encouraged to see how many early care educators participated in the Day Without Childcare last week, for example.

“These were women, many of them women of color who are currently either unpaid or very, very poorly paid, and they’re holding up our entire economy,” she said. “The protests give me hope that the writing is on the wall and people are realizing that we have to mobilize or we’re not going to see the progress that we need to see for kids, for families, for the economy. So I see movement-building as a big part of our strategy, but the role that I think funders can play is, as much as possible, staying out of the spotlight and following the leadership of especially BIPOC early childhood leaders and amplifying their messaging and their voices, and providing cash to support that work.”

Across every aisle

Like many of those working in early education today, Roche is hoping that the next few months will see some success in the Biden administration’s efforts to expand early care, and she thinks philanthropy can play a role in making that happen.

“With my C3 hat on, I think that the next six or nine months is the window for a really big push, and we are trying to throw our weight behind the voices of providers and parents,” she said. “For funders who might be a little nervous about stepping into it, I think we have a real opportunity here. That’s what keeps me so excited about this work: Across every political aisle, we all want kids to be joyful and healthy and happy. We all want a more just future.”

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