Start Early. Start well.

September 23, 2019

Cattle Ranchers, Police Chiefs, and Business Leaders: An Unlikely Group of Allies Is Fighting for Early Childhood Education

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

The police chief came because he can’t forget the family he once knew too well.

The father of the family sold drugs. Bryan Waugh, then an Omaha narcotics detective, would often go to his house to arrest him. When he did, he would sometimes see children in the home. 

A few years later, the family’s eldest son started to sell drugs. Soon Waugh was showing up to arrest him, too.

Kearney Police Chief Bryan Waugh Kearney Police Chief Bryan Waugh
(Photo courtesy of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids)

Waugh, now Kearney’s police chief, can’t forget the helpless feeling of clicking the handcuffs on a second generation knowing that he, and we, aren’t solving the deeper problems that make it more likely that a son would follow Dad into that family business.

So the police chief showed up at the 2019 Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference to fight for something that you might not expect a police chief to fight for.

Early childhood education. 

“I can tell you firsthand, from my experience, that we can’t arrest our way out of crime,” he told an audience during the Sept. 16 conference in Kearney. “Having the resources in place for that son before the turn of events happens in his life … that’s key. Research shows that it’s early childhood programs that could prepare him for success and reduce the chance of crime.”

Many of the 415 Nebraskans who congregated for the conference are the sorts of folks who have been fighting for early childhood for decades. They are teachers who know how early childhood education can transform young lives. They are researchers who have read and authored studies showing that a kid who gets quality early education is more likely to become a quality adult. 

But many others here were newer faces, unexpected faces—the sort of Nebraskans who most definitely wouldn’t have attended an early childhood conference even a few years ago.

The police chief and a retired brigadier general were here, arguing that early childhood is key if we want to break intergenerational cycles of poverty, low test scores, and crime.

A giant gaggle of economic development leaders showed up, making the case that Nebraska’s current workforce crunch—we have roughly 58,000 unfilled jobs in the state—can be eased with quality child care in every Nebraska community. They said many Nebraska companies are increasingly interested in early childhood because their employees who can’t find or can’t afford quality child care are demanding it.

“Young families, people in their late 20s and early 30s, people who have young children and are thinking about coming back to their hometown … Early child care and education is the primary thing those families are looking for when they are looking at where to move,” said Gabriel Steinmeyer, the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce’s director of workforce development.

Jay Wolf, a cattle rancher from Albion, was here. Wolf is a driving force in that town’s drive to build a child care center. He got involved after it became blindingly clear that a child care center is desperately needed in town. Wolf got serious, he says, “when I heard that kids who arrive at Kindergarten behind stay behind.” 

A contingent from Red Cloud came to the conference. That group already spearheaded the construction of a high-quality center now filled with nearly 70 young children daily. So did residents of Fremont, Columbus, Wood River, and many other Nebraska communities who have done something similar in their towns.

People from 92 different cities and towns showed up. 

So did five state senators, both urban and rural, both Democrat and Republican.

“In Lincoln we talk all the time about growing the state,” said Sen. Tom Briese, a Republican farmer from Albion who is a member of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. “I want to submit to you that one of the key factors in growing our state are early childhood programs. That’s the key of workforce development. It’s the key to growing Nebraska.”

The wide-ranging support from a diverse cast of characters cheers Nebraska’s early childhood experts. They know that the more allies who gather, and the more good arguments that those allies make, the likelier it is that Nebraska moves to the forefront of American early childhood education—right where Nebraska belongs, they think.

It cheers Nebraska’s early childhood experts because they can sense momentum.

“This is how we begin to build our state from within,” said Sam Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and a world-renowned expert in the field.  

“If Nebraska is going to be the best state in the nation to be a baby, then everyone will have to do his and her part. This is our task for today and every day that follows.”

Helen Raikes, the conference’s keynote speaker, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and one of the godmothers of early childhood education in Nebraska, surveyed the 400-plus faces during her keynote speech. She paused for a moment. 

“Dare I say this,” Raikes said. “I think I will. I think this is going to be a banner year for early childhood education in Nebraska.”

 

Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter. Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Matthew at matthewhansen@nebraska.edu.

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