Adding Early Childhood to City Planning – LB 880

Nebraska State Senator Matt Hansen introduced LB 880 to add an early childhood element to city comprehensive planning.

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Nebraska statute lays out guidelines for comprehensive development plans for four separate items – for metropolitan class cities, primary class cities, all other cities and counties. In all these cases, the general guidelines are the same. The comprehensive development plan is intended to be a long-range plan that helps the city or country figure out how to pursue its preferred future situation.

Statutes dictate that a planning commission of five, seven or nine members appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council, village board or county board are to offer recommendations on any comprehensive plan. Besides metropolitan class cities – which only includes Omaha – there are several facets required by statute that comprehensive plans must evaluate. The include infrastructure, schools, public utilities, housing and public facilities. Adding an early childhood element would require adding identical language to the each of the four statutes addressing comprehensive plans. Requiring that the early childhood element be mandatory only until 2022 also has precedent – in 2010, the Nebraska Legislature mandated that any new or updated comprehensive plan between July 15, 2010 and January 1 2015 include an energy element.

Early childhood education is clearly important to Nebraska communities. The Committee for Economic Development released a 2017 brief emphasizing that a quality early childhood program can improve a child’s readiness for school, which in turn leads to students who are prepared to learn and eventually enter the workforce and benefit their cities and counties economically. Evaluating and examining the facilities available to young children now can make a major difference to the children and to the future of the community as well.

Building Early Childhood Infrastructure – LB 768

Nebraska State Senator Dan Quick introduced LB 768 to help communities across Nebraska build early childhood infrastructure. Senators Crawford, Hansen, Kolowski, McCollister, Stinner, Wayne and Williams cosponsored the legislation.

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Over 25 years, the people of Nebraska approved and the Nebraska Legislature created a program allowing cities and villages to appropriate local funds, with approval of local voters, to economic development purposes. Since then, 68 Nebraska communities have held positive referendums on using this funding, often called 840 funding after the legislative bill that created the program, to offer loans, grants and other activities.

Since the program emphasizes local control, Nebraska’s communities have been able to use 840 funds to satisfy their community’s specific economic needs. Fremont has used 840 funds on street construction, renovation of public buildings and more general economic development. O’Neill has used 840 funds to create jobs and increase housing. Blair has considered using 840 funds for film production — a more unique cause that shows how widely 840 funds can be used to benefit a community economically.

Allowing LB840 funds to be directed towards early childhood infrastructure development would be a logical extension of this successful program. Nobel economist James J. Heckman released a study in 2017 demonstrating that high-quality early childhood programs for at-risk children can deliver a 13% per child per year return on investment. Given the emphasis on programs being high-quality, it would be important that LB 840 funds only be allowed for programs that are viewed as high quality under Nebraska’s Step Up to Quality Child Care Act. Under this act, Nebraska’s early childhood programs are judged on a five-step scale, with step-five being the best. Only programs rated step-three or above would b eligible for 840 funding.

The Committee for Economic Development released a brief in 2017 emphasizing that the first years of life and providing quality childhood education programs are imperative to school readiness, which in turn leads to students who have a head start in their education, which leads to their eventual preparedness to enter the workforce and benefit their communities economically. Jeff Yost, President and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation has emphasized that a small amount of investment in our state’s communities can have a major impact. Investing in education pays dividends for communities of all sizes and strengthens our state as a whole.