In our last episode, we discussed the cost of investing in high-quality childcare. Well, we are back to hear from Anna Kresse and Mackenzie Whipps from the Prenatal to 3 Policy Impact Center about the return on that investment--and we can tell you now, it's huge.

In our conversation, we also consider the role of CLASS® in the Virginia project and its connection to the return on investment in the quality of childcare. Anna and Mackenzie clearly show how inadequate access to childcare for kids, infants, and toddlers costs the nation about $122 billion every year and how childcare plays an important role in the economy. We also look closer at the value of states conducting high-quality, rigorous evaluations to understand the impact of the large influx of resources from pandemic-era funding and childcare.

Topics Discussed in This Episode

  • [00:00:42] Introducing Anna and Mackenzie and their work at the Prenatal to 3 Policy Impact Center
  • [00:03:03] How we know that investments in childcare are worth it
  • [00:10:14] The role that CLASS plays in the return on investment of the childcare work Anna and Mackenzie have been doing.
  • [00:13:43] A good starting point for an evaluation process
  • [00:18:00] The reforms New Mexico has been working on and what their outcomes have been 
  • [00:26:35] Virginia’s reforms and outcomes
  • [00:35:15] The meaning of theories of change
  • [00:39:35] Important takeaways from Anna and Mackenzie 


Marnetta Larrimer

Anna Kresse

Mackenzie Whipps

Report: Articulating the Value of Early Childhood Investments in Virginia

Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center

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Marnetta: Hello, listeners. Welcome to Impacting the Classroom. I am your host, Marnetta Larrimer.

Last time we chatted with the folks at the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center. We talked about the cost of quality childcare. But we didn't get to talk about the return on investment. What is the result of funded, high quality childcare?

Today, I'm being joined by Anna Kresse, who, if you listened to the last episode, is revisiting us again, and then we have a new person on our panel, Mackenzie Whipps.

Anna, can you reintroduce yourself to our audience?

Anna: Of course, I'm glad to be back. My name is Anna Kresse. I work with the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center. At the center, our goal is to share what rigorous research tells us are the most effective policies that states can implement to create the conditions that support children to thrive from the start.

The center has identified 12 evidence-based policies and strategies that states can implement to support kids and families. One of those strategies is childcare subsidies, which is how we started working in this childcare space.

I work on the research and evaluation team. We tend to do work with state partners to conduct original research and rigorous evaluations of state policies and programs. I've worked a lot on childcare in the last year with a couple of different states. So excited to talk about childcare again with you today.

Marnetta: Welcome back, Anna. Thank you so much. Ms. Mackenzie, welcome. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Mackenzie: Thank you. Yes, I'm so glad to be here, too, and chatting with Anna about all things childcare. I won't go through the whole field that she went through. She said it wonderfully.

I'm also a research associate at the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center. We are all about childcare right now. We're doing a lot of work in that space. I know it's a very important topic that a lot of folks are talking about.

My background is in community health and community psychology. I work with trying to transform systems to better support parents with young children. We've been working a lot on a lot of childcare projects and we're very excited to talk about it.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Welcome. So glad to have you, Mackenzie. As I mentioned earlier, we're continuing our conversation. If you haven't had a chance to hear from Anna and her colleague, Jen, I'd encourage you to go back and listen to that one first.

So where did we leave off? We talked a lot about why childcare is so expensive, we talked about opportunities to leverage funds, and we talked some about sourcing funds outside of federal funding. What we didn't get to chat about is the results when childcare does get funding. So that's going to be a focus of our conversation today.

So how do we know that huge investments in childcare are worth it? Who would like to start?

Mackenzie: Well, I can start answering that question, although it's definitely a question that you could spend an entire dissertation or book answering. Just to give a big picture view, I think there are a couple of important things that folks need to know about the basic science of the developing child.

The science is really clear that our earliest brain and body development set the stage for later development and well-being in childhood, adolescence, adulthood. The science is equally clear that our earliest experiences shape that early brain development and body development.

Humans are really unique in the degree to which we're really adaptable to different environments. What that translates to is brain plasticity really early on in a person's life. That's why it's so important to have the right people and the right settings around us to get us on the right developmental track.

We need nurturing care, we need safety and predictability, nutritious food, opportunities for early learning. I think one of the most important things is that we need sensitive responsive caregiving from adults in our lives.

As I'm saying this list of things that we need, obviously parents provide a lot of that safety, predictability, and sensitive responsive caregiving. But parents sometimes need to work, often need to work. When children are not with parents, they need those same qualities in their environment and in that caregiving.

We know from a lot of research, especially these really fantastic long-term demonstration projects on early childcare settings, things like the Abecedarian Project or the Perry Preschool Project, that really show the positive impact that high quality early education and care can have when it's implemented really, really well, and kids stay in it for all of their early years, they can really set children up to thrive well into the future and have huge returns on investment.

The problem that we run into a lot is scaling these types of really intense high quality programs, so that every child in the community can have access to high quality care is a really big issue. Evaluating other programs that are more (I guess) at scale, Early Head Start, that are operating under real world constraints, not under a scientist's ever watchful eye, the results are much more complex. They're more nuanced and often they're not exactly what we would expect.

I think we can say with some confidence that child care programs for kids are getting safe, stable, nurturing care, and the chance to practice skills that they're going to need in later schooling and in life are all markers of high quality care, and that high quality care is absolutely better for kids than the alternative. I think that's what we can say about why we think early childhood education and high quality child care really sets kids up for success.

Anna: I agree with all of that, Mackenzie, obviously. I also just want to chime in and add that, yes, there is still (I think) a lot for us to learn about what quality child care looks like at the state level when what's happening through publicly-funded care, what the threshold for high quality care is to get the positive outcomes, things like that.

When we're thinking about the value of child care for a state or for family, or the return on investment of child care, it's important for us to remember that those positive benefits from the quality piece of the child care, those long-term educational outcomes that we think come from quality child care, like more high school graduation, better kindergarten readiness, lower special education receipt, there's some evidence for all of those things. But those positive educational outcomes are only one piece of the puzzle and the potential impacts of a stable child care system are much broader than that.

I also think that there are other important stakeholders at play. You touched on this also, Mackenzie. We know that parents want and often need to work. For that to happen, we know that availability and affordability of child care are super important.

If child care isn't available because of the parents are in a rural area or because all the child care programs are closed because they couldn't afford to stay open, or because they don't have enough staff because wages are too low so they can't take on more kids, for whatever reason, if child care isn't available, parents may not be able to work ,or if child care is so expensive that it's unaffordable for families, parents may not be able to work or spend a huge portion of their income every month on child care.

When we think about how the return on investment for child care is, availability and affordability matter for parents and for kids, too. When parents can work, it can lift children out of poverty and support the conditions that kids need to thrive at home.

When parents spend less money on child care, they have more money to spend on things their kids need, like food on the table, housing, all those conditions that you mentioned, Mackenzie. When parents can afford to send their kids to safe nurturing care, as you said, it also keeps kids safe when their parents are at work.

The quality is a super important piece. I think we all on this podcast agree about that for sure. I think also when we're thinking about returns, it's really important to remember the aspects that come from parents being able to work, from care being available and affordable.

I know I'm just going on and on, but it also impacts the economy, so kids, families. Also, I think national estimates are that the inadequate access to childcare for kids, infants, and toddlers cost the nation about $122 billion every year because parents miss work, they quit their jobs, they turn down promotions, they can't focus at work, all these kinds of things. It all trickles down, even if you don't have kids. I think childcare plays an important role in the economy, which I think is easy to overlook.

Marnetta: Thank you for all of that. As you were talking, Mackenzie, there were so many things that resonated with me, just off the spot. It felt like a commercial for Teachstone because you were really talking about those CLASSy interactions. CLASS being this research-based tool that really helped to define what high quality interactions look like in a classroom that really helped to support students, and their ability to thrive in their spaces well beyond the time that educators have them, sensitive, responsive caregiving.

Let's talk some about the role that CLASS played in some of that return on investment in the work that you've been doing.

Anna: In the Virginia Project, which is where we did this estimate of the return on investment, we don't specifically evaluate the CLASS. That's (I think) the first important thing to know. Virginia is using the CLASS as part of their quality program. It's called VQB5, I think is their quality improvement program, which includes the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS).

A lot of states use QRIS to evaluate child care quality, and sometimes that can tie into subsidy reimbursement rates, things like that. For a lot of states, they look at class interactions, teacher-child interactions, and use this class rating system. Virginia does have that as part of their quality improvement initiative.

When we are looking at the impact of Virginia's investments, we didn't use any of the specific class numbers. We're thinking more about the long-term potential (I think) of the system, in part because in Virginia, they're still rolling all of that out.

I think this is the first year where participation in their Quality Rating and Improvement System is mandatory. It's something they're working towards to build the quality of child care in Virginia. It's something they know is important, that they're putting money and resources into, and have done it in different ways in the past. When we do our return on investment, we're really thinking about the goal of the system, if that makes sense.

Marnetta: Yes, it does.

Mackenzie: This is going to be my first of many plugs for this. As Anna mentioned, this isn't neither of the projects that we've led to look at some of this system transformation and reform efforts that have happened in the child care space have been evaluations of programs. So I think that's important to understand, too. I think CLASS is a fantastic tool to evaluate all sorts of initiatives, as well as basic science to understand what's going on in communities and what's going on in classrooms.

This is my big plug for all states who really have been experimenting a lot in the past couple of years with this large influx of resources from pandemic-era funding and child care. States have done an enormous number of different strategies, tried different reforms to try to improve quality, affordability, and access to child care.

States now need to evaluate their work. They need to go into their own backyards and they need to find out what happened to that funding and what worked and what didn't work. This huge influx of resources really did provide an opportunity to try to understand what resources can go where, and what's going to make the biggest impact for kids, for educators, and for providers. That's my first plug, but I will plug that again, I'm sure.

Truly we can use the evidence base to theorize what are going to be the long-term outcomes and what are going to be the long-term return on investment with these large investments in childcare that have been made. But states really do need to do high quality rigorous evaluations in order to see what's happening in your own context.

Marnetta: When you speak of that, where would you have a program start? What would be a good starting point for them to start that evaluation process?

Mackenzie: It depends on where the state is. Every state and every community is started from a different place. If they already have started reform efforts, that's not the ideal time to start an evaluation. Ideally, you'd want to be collecting data and looking at the strengths and needs of the community before reforms take place. Then again, as reforms are rolling out, and then again later after reforms are more stabilized, continue to be sustained, and continue to follow kids long-term.

Some states are already set up with their data systems to be able to do that longitudinal evaluation approach. I know in the state of New Mexico that I worked really closely with, they worked really hard to get their child-level integrated data system together to be able to follow kids, to see what their outcomes are, to see what programs are utilizing, when, for how long, and the quality of those programs over time. They're going to be really set up in a great way to be able to evaluate all of these with long efforts in the future.

Other states haven't gotten there yet, but sort of like planting a tree. The best time to start is 10 years ago, but the second best time is today. I think starting the evaluation process with really solid data systems and understanding your own theory of change, what you think is going to be happening from these reforms in your community, is a really important place to start as well.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Anna, did you want to add anything?

Anna: I think Mackenzie did a great job of covering that. I just wanted to add only that I think Virginia is another state that has been doing a really thoughtful job about understanding the role the data can play in making these long-term changes, not only because it can help them know how to spend their money well, but it also provides long-term justification. Not every state has a whole bunch of people really excited to spend a lot of money on childcare, so sometimes you need to justify continuing to spend the money that you're spending.

Virginia, for example, did several years ago, educator incentives, which they now have as part of a program called RecognizeB5. They saw that educator turnover was a huge problem, having a hard time keeping educators. So they did a randomized control trial, where they provided $1500 across three increments to some educators.

They found that educators who received the trial had half the turnover rate as educators who didn't receive the incentive. They were able to take that information and say, okay, clearly money matters for these educators in our state. That makes sense. They've just kept putting more money into that program, building it more and more.

Now, I think in 2023—and this 2023–2024, this fiscal year—they are offering $3000 financial incentives to any two eligible educators. I think it’s a good example of when you do thoughtfully measure the impact of something, you kind of know, great, I'm going to just keep plugging away at this.

Similarly, they're really (I think) thinking about how to tie young kids' experience in early childhood education to long-term educational outcomes to continue building those arguments, which I think will be helpful for all states. Important for the states themselves, because as Mackenzie said, state context is so important. The result in one state may not be exactly the same in another state because of all different reasons. But any information, I think, is helpful with these big reforms.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Thank you for that. We've been talking about New Mexico and Virginia, and I want to give some space to get a very full picture, like in a whole picture of these states and the work that they've been doing, what those returns on their investments have turned out to be or what they're working toward.

Let's start with New Mexico, what they've been working on, what they've been going through, and what these outcomes are, so that way we have a nice whole picture instead of these beautiful pieces we keep inserting in several places. So let's start with New Mexico.

Mackenzie: Great. Yeah, I'm always happy to find new stuff. They've been a true leader in this child care performance space. I definitely want to give them all the props in the entire universe all the time.

I want to back up just two steps and explain what the child care crisis is. Obviously, the pandemic brought the child care crisis to a lot of people's top of mind. But childhood was in crisis well before the pandemic hit. Providers are not able to keep their doors open because they're not able to charge families enough to have high quality programs that are sustainable, and they still can't pay their teachers any more than poverty wages in a lot of places. Families can't afford more, educators can't make any less, providers are caught in the middle. It's a gridlocked system.

A new governor came in in New Mexico, and this was one of her big areas that she wanted to focus on. Even before the pandemic hit they really got to work early. In 2019 is when a lot of things started kicking off.

They did a number of different things that I think are really important to talk about. There are big, fundamental funding and government infrastructure changes that Mexico started with. They created a whole new early childhood education and care department as a cabinet level position under the governor. That became the hub of all things birth-to-five. We're really prenatal-to-five I should say.

That moved everything to one place, so the right people in the right room, talking about things to really be able to support families with young children. That was one of the first things that they did.

They also started moving gears to get permanent sources of funding for a lot of these early childhood programs, including childcare. They were able to get a constitutional amendment passed, for example, to use the permanent school funds or the land grant funds to be able to fund early childhood education.

They created a whole new early childhood fund based on a state windfall of extra taxes and money that they had from minerals and other sources that New Mexico had a windfall. Some of that money went towards really childhood education funding.

They did a lot of this work in sustainable funding infrastructure first, and they got those wheels moving. Those policies take really long years to really come to fruition, but they started them early. Then after that they started making targeted reforms, and they did a number of different things.

I urge people to go to our website at the Prenatal-to-3 Care Policy Impact Center and read our full report, because it's really astonishing just the sheer number of things that New Mexico managed to accomplish in the childcare space in just a couple of years. You can definitely go and read about each and everything; exhaustively documented it.

In general there are a couple of big buckets that they work to do. They reform their Child Care Subsidy System, which I know Anna talked a lot about last week. They did a couple of things like expanded eligibility, so that most low- and middle-income families are now eligible for childcare subsidies in New Mexico, meaning that they can access free childcare if they're able to get a subsidized child care slot.

They also changed the way that they reimbursed providers for providing subsidized care, which hopefully will incentivize more providers to offer subsidized slots so that all these newly eligible folks can take advantage of free childcare. They got rid of co-payments for families, so again, that childcare for subsidized families is free. They implemented a wage supplementation program that boosted educator pay $3 an hour or a really large portion of the early childhood education workforce.

They did so many things at once. They sure threw everything that they could to try to fix this gridlocked system, and to right the market failure that has been happening in every state in this country.

I think that gives a pretty good picture, but again, we have nice timelines and things in the report. If folks are interested in learning more, definitely go to our website and find out more.

Marnetta: Wonderful. We definitely will include that report with this delivery. Is there anything else you want to tell us about the New Mexico's story?

Mackenzie: States can learn a lot (I think) from just looking at what another state has done to approach a really intractable problem like this market failure in childcare. They moved on so many fronts, though. It can be challenging for states. It would be hard for us to hand another state of blueprint like New Mexico and say, do everything at once, please, and thank you.

Not every state has the same political will and resources that New Mexico may have at any given point to throw at the child no problem. But I think it is helpful to see how long it took to do some of these reforms. Some of them can be done really quickly and some of them take just more time and investment in figuring out what has to happen first before more targeted reforms can happen. That's sustainable funding, infrastructure development, data system development and things like that. So, yeah, I think states can learn a lot from what New Mexico did.

Marnetta: I heard so many beautiful things, specifically when you're thinking about access, because we do know. As we stated, those early interventions, that early care, that very supportive quality care for children, and that access to that care while parents are having to work. We know how impactful and important that is, so allowing more space and ability to be able to tap into that is so important.

I'm going to read the report again, but can you tell us what some of those outcomes were? Tell us about that.

Mackenzie: Again, this is my plug for [...] included, states me to evaluate what this is. The work that we did as a center was to exhaustively document these wide-ranging, large number of reforms that New Mexico did to transform the child care system, and to develop a theory of change.

We dove deep into the literature to see, based on the literature that already exists in other places other than New Mexico, what are the likely outcomes of these different reforms all happening at the same time or consecutively. To try to see how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together, and how that impacts a reform aimed at affordability, if they have unintended consequences for quality, and vice versa.

So really trying to understand how the system fits together as a whole, so that states can then use this theory of change at the system level, to theorize the, okay if we turn on this lever but not this lever, what do we think is likely to happen? It gives a framework for state leaders and advocates to be able to do that.

We don't have outcomes in New Mexico yet. They haven't evaluated, so fingers crossed. I'm looking forward to seeing what their outcomes actually are for kids, educators, and providers. This isn't the evaluation, unfortunately.

Marnetta: I love it. It's the story that has yet to be completely written. Cliff hanger, love it. I can only imagine the things that they put in place at the end of that story. Well not even an end; it's a continuous thing, but what that's going to look like. Thank you so much for telling us about New Mexico, really elevating the work that they're doing there, and giving some very actionable things for other organizations to take advantage of and think about as they're building their systems. So elevated New Mexico.

Virginia, are you ready? Let's hear about Virginia.

Anna: Of course. Like New Mexico, Virginia really set out to think about child care reform as a system of changes that needed to happen in concert with one another. They did a lot of things similar to New Mexico but mostly on a slightly smaller scale. They raised income eligibility for subsidies. Not as high as New Mexico did, but still pretty high. Eighty-five percent of state median income, but that equates to a little over 300% of the federal poverty level for kids under five.

They committed to funding all eligible kids who applied for subsidies, so they basically eliminated their state waitlist. They raised their subsidy reimbursement rates to the true cost of quality. They did all of these pieces in concert with one another. And they also invested in quality, including financial incentives for educators, to try to retain educators. They did a lot of pieces to try to think about stabilizing the child care system and expanding access to affordable care for kids in Virginia.

Unlike New Mexico, one piece they're still missing is sustainable funding. Virginia took a really big and cool risk. They used the temporary emergency funding from the federal government during the pandemic to invest in system reform. A lot of states did really creative things with that money, but a lot of states were afraid to do too much because they knew it would go away.

It's one thing to say, here now we've raised your wages to $15 an hour, but now we're taking it back because we ran out of federal money. Or you were eligible for a childhood subsidy and now you're not. That change if you can't sustain it is scary.

But Virginia did it anyway. They really took a bold risk, I think, which is really cool because no matter what happens, they did provide care to these kids during this time. They're still looking for figuring out the path forward to sustaining all of their changes after when the federal money runs out.

The report that we did in Virginia was we worked with an organization in Virginia called the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation. They really wanted us to quantify, given what Virginia did, what is that offering to the state of Virginia? What are they getting out of this money well spent?

We looked at what they spent in fiscal year 2023. We looked at that money relative to what they spent before the influx of pandemic funds. It's a difference of about $309 million. That $309 million provided affordable quality care to 11,151 children under the age of five, as well as about 4000 kids over the age of five. Those families were able to access care because of those investments.

Using that information, thinking about the number of kids who had access to affordable care and the money spent that can allow parents to go back to work, basically we did a literature review to understand the evidence that's out there.

We created a theory of change to understand the pathways through which affordable, high quality care can impact across the life course. Then we tried to put dollar amounts to anything that we could to really help so that Virginia could really understand the value of the investment that they made.

We know that the value of ensuring that children can thrive from the start is hard to put a dollar amount on that. I think most of us, at least on this podcast, would agree that we want that no matter what. Even if it costs money, we probably still want it. The reality is that it is usually a good investment, and in this case, childcare is.

We find that the money that Virginia spent allows almost 11,000 moms to go back to work, 10,710 moms can become employed, which generates at least $320 million in income for their families. That generates tax revenue for the state. It stimulates the economy. Families who already had subsidies spend less money on childcare because they also changed their copayment rates, and parents who were already working and paying for childcare are also spending less money on childcare.

We also see an increase in disposable income, which again is better for families and also better for the economy, because again, parents are spending that money on other things. We see reduced child maltreatment. We see more than 5,000 kids lifted out of poverty. We estimate that there will be reduced child maltreatment, more than 5,000 kids lifted out of poverty under the age of five.

We know that poverty is a predictor for a lot of tough stuff across the life course, so lifting kids out of poverty has huge impacts. Being in poverty your entire life, like born into poverty and spending your childhood in poverty, costs about $1.8 million per child.

The national cost of child poverty is about $5 trillion, I think. It's an expensive thing if we're thinking just dollars to dollars. Lifting kids out of poverty packs an economic punch, or at least it has a potential to. On top of that, if the quality of care these kids are receiving is high, we also estimate that it's going to help them do better across the rest of their educational career.

Basically, we can think about childcare as an intervention that happens early in life, that's supporting kids to have the conditions they need to thrive both at home and when not at home. This can shift kids onto a different trajectory and support better outcomes across the life course.

Better school readiness, lower grade retention, less special education recede, higher rates of high school graduation, higher rates of college attendance, and better income in their adulthood.

It’s a pretty exciting prospect, I think. It's hard for people to wrap their heads around the long-term educational stuff, and I think that's fair. I also think a lot of other factors come into play there. When we just think about the impact of parents being able to work, being able to bring income into their homes and into the economy, I think we can see what a big difference investments like this can make in states.

Marnetta: That was beautiful. Lots of work and how much fun it is to be able to document that, because sometimes you can just say whatever you want to say, but it's really looking at those numbers. Those are high numbers—11,150. That is a huge impact. Eleven thousand parents are able to go to work because they have some place for their children to go, and how it impacts the economy. We really have to work together to make this work.

Then when you talked about children who are living in poverty and how it impacts us economically as a nation. Why would you not invest in early childhood? I'm taking Mackenzie's words, that's a plug in itself. For selfish reasons, I could invest in this so that I can minimize the other costs in supporting those families.

Anna: I think sometimes the numbers are so big, it's hard for people to wrap their heads around. I think also when you put dollar signs on things, sometimes that's also complicated for people to not understand but just believe, maybe. But I agree.

I think this report is a really concrete way to think about these issues, which I think is really helpful. Like Mackenzie did, I also really urge people to go to our website and read the report. There's also just a short brief. If you aren't up for an ADP report, I hear you, I get it. But there's also a short brief that gives you the highlights. I think it's really important and exciting information.

Marnetta: Is it on Audible if I don't want to read it?

Mackenzie: It should be.

Anna: I wish, yeah.

Marnetta: Just thinking about different ways people learn and take in information. A lot of times when we live in this space, we use a lot of words that are jargon words and things that we're used to. For our listeners who are really trying to grasp some of the things—because there were some definitions and I understand what you're saying—we talked a lot about the theory of change. If organization, systems are going to really start with there, can you talk to us about what that is so that our audience knows what that means?

Mackenzie: I can talk a little bit about theories of change. There's not necessarily clear guidance. We know there's a lot of evidence that we have that this demonstration project told us that in this context, X input gave us this outcome. Or in this state, we turned on this policy and this is what we found five years later. There are lots of information and evidence on what can work in the childcare reform space.

But there are still major holes in the evidence space. We have yet to get a functional childcare system in this country up and running. There's really not a whole lot of guidance right now for states to create a system that is functional and equitable for folks.

Theories of change are really fundamentally useful for this exact reason. Well-developed theory of change that's based on the existing evidence space can explain and predict how changes in one part of a system ultimately go on to impact all sorts of other parts of a system.

This policy change will lead to this small impact, which leads to this small impact, which leads to this small impact, which changes this impact. It's a lot of boxes and arrows that you often will see that can look confusing. What it's really trying to do is explain the pathways through which an action, a policy, or program can lead to the outcomes that you care about, that you care to measure.

There are a couple of things that are really useful about theories of change. For an academic like Anna and I, we really like them because we like to predict and explain things and to evaluate them. But it can also help state leaders, policy makers, and advocates to plan the implementation of new policies and programs. It can potentially show folks where the most likely roadblocks could potentially be used.

We know that this policy is likely to impact eligibility for childcare subsidies, for example. You can make lots more folks eligible for childcare subsidy. But unless there are more child care-subsidized slots in the system too, those children can't access subsidized care. It's just going to make wait lists grow. It's not going to actually change affordability for childcare at population level.

Also, as researchers, selfishly it helps us be able to organize the evidence base and understand like, okay, we don't have clear evidence for this pathway. If providers are given a lot more money in the subsidy system, we don't know necessarily that they are going to use that money to pay providers, to pay educators living wages without a mandate to do so. That research is on us. We need to do that work in order to understand how the system fits together.

There are a lot of ways that a well-developed theory of change can guide research and people on the ground, to be able to ultimately make a difference for families of young kids. So yeah, they're helpful.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Anna, did you want to add anything to her beautiful explanation of the theory of change, the importance, and the why?

Anna: I honestly don't think there's anything I could add that was so beautifully expressed, Mackenzie. No notes.

Marnetta: That was great because sometimes we talk and we forget about making things accessible, so I appreciate you helping with that.

We don't have very much time left together. I always like to give my guests an opportunity to have one last plug before they go. I would love for each of you to have some parting words, knowledge, wisdom, action, steps for organizations and leaders who are listening to this, that would support our field in this work that you're doing.

Anna: I think the big takeaway for me is early childhood matters, and states can make a difference. They can make a difference in a lot of different ways and childcare is one of them. I think really identifying the needs within a specific state and recognizing the role that childcare has to play across a lot of different pieces is really important.

I said this last time, but I'll say it again. Childcare is a good investment. There's no downside to investing in childcare, so really being thoughtful and being brave as a state to move forward with that I think is just good for everybody.

Marnetta: Thank you.

Mackenzie: I would just add a second plug for states. Please evaluate the programs, all these reform efforts that you spent money, time, and resources on, that really have potentially transformed your childcare system in your communities. I think you need to find out what's going on. Talk to people.

When you evaluate all these childcare reform strategies that you've been undertaking and experimenting with—I'm going to make a really hard pitch—please center the voices of parents of young children and the voices of the educators and caregivers that are actually hands-on in the classroom with young children. They'll tell you things that you need to hear and maybe hard to hear, but it's really important to find out those voices.

Marnetta: I agree with all of that. You can't speak from a hill without being on the ground first, and carrying that stuff up the hill with you. Those voices and experiences are what drives the work that we do and are important. Love that.

This was lovely. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Mackenzie and Anna. This was so great. I think that everyone is going to love this episode. As they stated, there are a couple of research articles that we need to look over, just ingest, adore, and hopefully get inspired by the work that's happening in New Mexico and Virginia.

Quick reminder, registration is open for our annual conference, InterAct CLASS Summit, taking place in sunny San Diego, California, April 3rd through the 4th. This is the place to be if you want to know more about CLASS implementation and impact. If you have a story to share, we are accepting proposals until December 1st. You can visit to register or submit a proposal.

You can find today's episode and transcript on our website, And as always, friends, behind great leading and teaching are powerful interactions. Let's build that culture together.