Diana Mendley Rauner, an MIP network member, is President of Start Early. Start Early (formerly known as The Ounce of Prevention) is a public-private partnership that advances quality early learning and care for families with children, before birth through their earliest years, to help close the opportunity gap. With an operating budget of approximately $74 million, Start Early develops direct center-based and home-based programs and services to children and families, provides professional development tools and trainings to scale best practices within the field, innovates new solutions for continuous quality improvement, and advocates for effective public policies and funding that put families first. Rauner joined the Start Early staff in 2007 and was appointed president in January 2011, having previously served as a board member. Prior to joining Start Early, she was a senior research associate at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and an associate at private equity firms in San Francisco and Chicago. Rauner holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Chicago, an M.B.A. from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a B.A. from Yale University. 


Describe your area of study and how it relates to current policy discussions surrounding inequality?

Prior to joining Start Early, my research on language environments in child care homes serving children from under-resourced communities provided me with a first-hand look at existing inequities in our early childhood system and how many children lack access to key components of attentive, responsive caregiving.

Fast forward two decades, and the research evidence on the ability of quality early educational experiences to close the opportunity gap is well-documented. Through the work of James Heckman and others, quality early home visiting and education programs have demonstrated effectiveness and long-term returns on educational attainment, income, health, and positive social behaviors for children and families from under-resourced communities. More recent longitudinal studies have demonstrated these impacts persist into future generations, suggesting that quality programming at scale is an effective strategy to break the cycle of poverty.

Policy discussions have increasingly recognized the importance of prioritizing families and supporting their needs beginning before birth, culminating this spring with an explosion of public funding for early childhood care and education. The American Families Plan represents one of the most significant investments in young children in decades and the $450 billion proposed in President Biden’s American Families Plan would provide quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in our nation, strengthen investments in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with developmental delays and disabilities, support quality child care, expand the Child Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and ensure twelve weeks of paid family leave.

Rising to this unprecedented opportunity will require coordinated, coherent and collaborative action to ensure this massive influx of public funding results in improved outcomes for all children and families. For policymakers, this is an opportunity to boldly rethink and improve our early learning and care programs by proactively addressing existing disparities and ensuring that programs meet the needs of children and families. For researchers, this means answering questions that illuminate effective strategies that dissolve disparities along racial, geographic, and other demographic lines in order to ensure equitable access, use, and therefore benefit to families with young children from early childhood interventions, care, and education.

Dissolving inequities in early educational experiences will necessarily require us to take better care of our early childhood providers, educators, and practitioners, who have been similarly systemically underpaid, undervalued, and undersupported for decades. These early education practitioners, educators, and leaders are under immense pressure to create supportive environments for young children and their families to thrive, all while struggling with their own well-being and work conditions that hinder the administrative supports and collaboration they need to feel committed, confident, and to be competent in their daily work. 

At Start Early (formerly the Ounce of Prevention), research and evaluation are an integral part of our comprehensive approach — along with program and policy — to optimize and scale our work, helping us have the greatest impact for children, families, and the early childhood professionals that serve them. Our research aims to promote practice, policy and system changes and improvements at state, local, and national levels, with the goal of increasing equitable access and benefit to quality early childhood programs and services for every child in the country. 

As the field grapples with how to create a coherent set of supports for families and rise to the current moment, Start Early is facilitating collaboration and the sharing of best practices and resources, as well as contributing our own knowledge, relationships and track record of scaling quality programs and supporting systems building to create transformational change for our children and families.


What areas in the study of inequality are most in need of new research?

There is an urgent gap in research documenting how to translate the aspirational policy ideals of social justice and greater equity, access and inclusion into concrete, achieved results for families and communities that continue to be inequitably resourced as a result of historic and institutional racism. 

For instance, we know early care and education (ECE) interventions have positive impacts on child and family outcomes for children who experience homelessness, children involved in the welfare system, and children with developmental delays and disabilities. Unfortunately, the patchwork of policies and funding currently in place to promote enrollment of children from these three priority populations into quality ECE interventions isn’t working: children and families that stand to benefit the most remain both underserved by ECE programs and overenrolled in the lowest quality programming. These fragmented and half-hearted efforts leave stakeholders feeling overwhelmed by the challenge and leave the field with insufficient evidence to guide equity-focused policy and practice development. 

We must do more to fill gaps in understanding of whether, how and under what contexts and conditions ECE policies and programs are effectively promoting equitable access and use for children and families with the most complex needs, and what policy and implementation strategies and improvements would make them work better.  


What advice do you have for emerging scholars in your field?

Valid, reliable, trusted data can be a powerful driver of social movements. The recent passage of the American Rescue Plan and proposed investments in the American Families Plan present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to permanently transform our early childhood systems and programs at the community, state and federal levels. Research evidence and data will be critical to ensure these one-time investments are made permanent. Emerging scholars have an opportunity to analyze and measure how states interpreted and operationalized the multiple policy levers of the American Rescue Plan and which elements of state infrastructure were most effective at helping providers and practitioners implement this historic piece of legislation effectively. The field is rich with equity-focused research opportunities that will help create a just and bright future for all children.

I also would encourage emerging scholars to develop strong partnerships with those doing early childhood program and policy implementation and advocacy work. Research and data are critical to informing program development, implementation, and systems improvement that can achieve positive outcomes at scale. However, the capacities and resources needed to effectively achieve these accountability and improvement ideals are substantial, and rarely achieved by practitioners or researchers working separately. 

In addition to partnering with practitioners, researchers must ensure the inclusion and influence of parents, caregivers and community members in a meaningful way. New equity principles in research and evaluation are helping ensure that family and stakeholder engagement is no longer something done to “check a box,” but rather a rigorous and ethical way of conducting research and evaluation to fend off partial truths by ensuring parents and communities shape the inquiry, methods, interpretations, and dissemination and use of findings to truly impact the lives of children and families, especially those from historically disenfranchised populations and under-resourced communities.