How can we solve America’s education crisis? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently argued that while we cannot retreat from K-12 reforms, we must focus more energy on early childhood education. He argues this not only because targeted support at ages 0-5 yields huge social gains, but also because early childhood isn’t burdened with the same political divisions and mistrust that will make progress in the K-12 system a “long slog.”
We couldn’t agree more. My company, Lilly, is committed to improving the K-12 system, but we see some especially compelling opportunities for consensus and sustainable progress in early education. And, importantly, we reached this conclusion in a way that could prove broadly useful to others looking to make an impact on pressing social issues.
Though many readers will be familiar with the emergent model of philanthropy articulated in the article “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World”—which we have employed to improve education in our hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana—a brief note for context: Emergent strategies are arguably best equipped to deal with the highly complex nature of today’s social challenges. They flow from consultation and engagement with stakeholders, a willingness to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, a commitment to adapt and incorporate learnings on a real-time basis, and an orientation toward overall systems instead of single variables.
Our philanthropic work has long focused on the K-12 track, with the goal of helping more kids graduate from high school. But we saw so many children in Indianapolis showing up for kindergarten disastrously unprepared—academically and socially—hobbling these efforts at the outset. And like Kristof, we continued to notice the growing body of persuasive research demonstrating the link between early childhood education and greater achievement later in life.
So we began to expand our view of what was needed to create systemic change—and what was possible based on emergent factors.
After years of stagnation, in 2014 the public sector finally found an appetite for investing in pre-K. The state of Indiana passed a $15 million pilot program. Then a few months later, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard announced a bold plan to invest up to $50 million over five years in a public-private partnership to dramatically increase pre-K access for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ballard, a Republican, even proposed a tax increase to pay for it.
We seized the opportunity, and quickly announced that if the city’s legislative body actually passed and funded a meaningful plan, Lilly would donate $2 million to support this initiative and commit to raising another $8 million—for a total of $10 million.
But the program needed bipartisan support. As the initiative of a Republican mayor dealing with the Democratic-controlled City-County Council, it risked becoming a political football. In addition, opponents of the plan made substantive points, including the city’s broader financial obligations, the detrimental impact of new taxes (however modest), and the fact that education was the state’s responsibility.
In the end, we were able to move beyond this impasse by taking advantage of another emergent factor: mounting public frustration with political gridlock at all levels of government.
First, Lilly, along with PNC Bank and other supporters, dialed up advocacy efforts, and garnered support from fifty CEOs, executives, and community leaders. Then we engaged with leading columnists and reporters to build a case for bold action in the media. Finally, we assisted early education supporters and thoughtful legislative leaders on both sides to build consensus, first within their own parties and then across party lines.
As the deadline for passage of the measure drew near, leaders from both sides managed to dial down the rhetoric, clearing the way for a thoughtful debate and, ultimately, agreement. The proposal passed the City-County Council by a vote of 19 to 8.
Through the new program, 1,000 3- and 4-year-olds living in families below the poverty line will be enrolled in high-quality, pre-K programs this fall. This will help them prepare to enter kindergarten with the same academic and social skills as their peers. And it will give them the best shot at a rewarding educational track that will nurture them through to high school graduation and beyond.
We hope the consensus patiently forged last year in Indianapolis will have long-term political benefits, including the ability to present a unified, bipartisan front in the next stage of the project: persuading Indiana’s General Assembly to support further expansion of early childhood education programs.
As more philanthropic organizations experiment with emergent strategy to tackle complex global issues, Lilly’s experience with early education demonstrates that the same tenets and tactics are equally applicable to local problems. Kristof and others may be right about the political challenges ahead for comprehensive K-12 education reform, but with a truly emergent model of philanthropy, most any organization can seize opportunities to create positive local change on issues that matter.