'Billion Dollar Bets' in Onondaga County

The new Embassy Suites hotel on Hiawatha boulevard was bustling on November 7, as Syracuse school representatives, service providers, funders and government officials gathered to hear the latest research out of the nationally renowned Bridgespan Group. Devin Murphy, a consultant at Bridgespan, presented the organization’s latest findings, summarized in a report called ‘Billion Dollar Bets to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American’. While the report is intentionally broad in scope, many of the findings - specifically those concerning early child development - have significant implications for Syracuse and Onondaga County.

Months ago, the Early Childhood Alliance came across the ‘Billion Dollar Bets’ report as they surveyed the research on early childhood development. They were struck by the report’s local relevance, and felt that disseminating this research could spur action. ‘The Early Childhood Alliance wanted to bring a well-known speaker to Syracuse to explain why early childhood investment should be a priority for us as a community,” says Margaret O’Connell, President of the Early Childhood Alliance and Executive Director of the Allyn Family Foundation.

Murphy opened his presentation with troublingly familiar statistics: poverty rates nationwide have stagnated over the past three decades, despite private and public investments. Economic mobility is disproportionately affected by birth, race and geography; as Warren Buffett once remarked, some individuals win the ‘ovarian lottery’ through serendipitous birth into stable, financially secure families, while others are relegated to families and livelihoods with meager opportunities for growth or change.

Bridgespan, along with a group of interested philanthropists, felt that the time was ripe for a different approach to poverty. They honed in on a hypothetical research question: how could a philanthropic investment of $1 billion significantly bolster social mobility for low-income families?

Through extensive research and interviews, Bridgespan identified 15 promising ‘bets’ where 1 billion of capital could ignite upward mobility, as measured by increases in lifetime earnings. Surprisingly, Bridgespan also found that a billion dollar ‘bet’ would yield a sizeable ROI - ranging from $3 to $15 - for every one dollar invested. Murphy focused on two of the 15 ‘billion dollar bets’ in his presentation to Syracusans on November 7. The selected areas - reducing unintended pregnancy and supporting holistic child development from birth through kindergarten - coincide with the Early Childhood Alliance’s mission, as well as two of the Allyn Family Foundation’s current priority initiatives.

We, as philanthropists and as a nation, says Murphy, are financially neglecting early childhood education. Federal and state spending for education programs directed at children ages 6-11 is 66 times greater than for programs for infants aged 0-2. This is despite ample research suggesting greater ROI for early childhood programs compared to interventions later in life.

Education and neuroscience findings further support proactive intervention in the early childhood years. Children who enter kindergarten “developmentally ready”, as measured by a set of indicators including language proficiency and social/emotional development, are vastly more likely to master basic skills by 3rd grade than their counterparts that are not developmentally ready. As Murphy notes, this discrepancy has implications throughout the lifespan: kindergarten readiness and skill mastery at 3rd grade are strong predictors of continued success in school, up through high school graduation.

As the American economy increasingly demands a moderately skilled labor force, a high school diploma or equivalent is absolutely crucial for income mobility. Bridgespan estimates a $5.5 - 11 billion increase in lifetime earnings of children who are kindergarten ready.

Murphy explained that there are four crucial gateways to ensure that all children, including those from low-income families, are kindergarten ready and reading at grade level by 3rd grade. In his presentation to local funders, Murphy stressed that targeted philanthropy can be instrumental in helping families and caregivers support children’s cognitive and emotional development. He discussed the dire need, nationwide, for instruments that connect child assessment results to appropriate services, so that each family is receiving tailored support. He also discussed the importance of high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten for all 3 and 4 year olds, especially those from low-income families, in conjunction with proven parenting education programs like Ready4K and the Nurse-Family Partnership.

In Onondaga County, a high percentage of children are enrolled in formal learning environments - yet only 38% of children are currently meeting state standards on the third grade ELA exam. The number for the city of Syracuse is even lower - 11%. Clearly, there is work to be done.

O’Connell hopes that Murphy’s presentation will galvanize stakeholders and funders to take steps towards systems change in early childhood education. The Early Childhood Alliance is already taking action: the organization, along with the Allyn Family Foundation, is lobbying Onondaga County to direct more local funding into early childhood work. Funds are needed to ensure that 3 and 4 year olds are able to consistently attend pre-kindergarten in Syracuse: while the city offers full-day pre-kindergarten for 3 and 4 year olds, there is currently no bussing system to transport young children to Pre-K on a reliable basis, says O’Connell. The Early Childhood Alliance is also working on expanding comprehensive screening through the tested Help Me Grow program, and is also researching an early childhood program called Parent-Child Home with demonstrated success in Buffalo, NY.

Murphy closed his presentation with optimism: “There’s much to be hopeful about,” he said, as he described initiatives unfolding locally and in other cities across the country. Regardless of whether funders invest billions into Syracuse, Bridgespan’s research indicates that there are proven solutions to economic immobility. It starts, in part, with children.

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