Mark Shriver, in this 2012 file photo, formed the Save the Children Action Network last year to “turn up the heat” on legislators and policymakers. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Save the Children, the century-old child-welfare organization, has spun off a new political arm that is crusading to make early-childhood education a top-tier issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Save the Children Action Network (SCAN) is running a multi-pronged strategy in the early-
voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina designed to convince candidates from both parties that preschool is a winning issue among swing voters.

Mark Shriver, SCAN’s president, formed the 501c(4) organization last year to “turn up the heat” on legislators and policymakers.

“At Save the Children through the last 12 years, I’d go around the country and talk to people and they all tell me I’m doing God’s work and this is critically important,” said Shriver, 51, a former Maryland lawmaker and nephew of President John F. Kennedy. “But when push comes to shove, they’re not putting their money where their mouth is.”

Too many politicians think of education as “nice but not necessary,” Shriver said in an interview. “We’re trying to look at this from purely a political perspective. How do we make early-childhood education a priority and a necessity for the voters who are going to elect the next president of the United States?”

A billboard that Save the Children Action Network has at the Des Moines airport, urging candidates to make early childhood education a central issue of the 2016 presidential campaign. (Save the Children Action Network)

SCAN is not a political action committee; it is not trying to influence candidates through donations, Shriver said. Instead, he said, the organization is working to identify voters who care about early-childhood education and have them carry that message to the candidates.

The organization has hired political strategist Tom Sheridan and plans to spend about $16 million by the end of 2016, spokesman Brendan Daly said. SCAN has not released the names of its donors.

It is currently running broadcast television ads in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, and it sponsored a recent candidates forum in New Hampshire. Travelers moving through the Des Moines airport are faced with a SCAN billboard encouraging Democrats, Republicans and independents to “Tell our next president to make early childhood education a priority!”

Though voters often tell pollsters that they care about education, it is rarely a top issue in presidential campaigns. In the first Republican debate last week, education was limited to a quick exchange about the Common Core State Standards between former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

In 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, two major funders of K-12 education initiatives, pledged to spend $60 million to catapult education to the front burner in that year’s presidential contest. But they pulled the plug on their campaign, called “Ed in ’08,” after investing $24 million without making much headway.

That campaign in 2008 was largely a mass media effort; SCAN is trying to run a more targeted, strategic effort to cultivate grass-roots activists, voters and caucusgoers and have them exert pressure on candidates, Shriver said.

“We’re a start-up, and we’re just trying to be focused and be strategic,” Shriver said. “We’re not the NRA or AARP; we’re just going to get up and start working with people who care about this issue.”

President Obama has repeatedly called on Congress to create universal preschool for low-
income 4-year-olds, saying it is the best and most cost-effective way to narrow the achievement gap between poor children and their more affluent peers. Republican governors in Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Indiana and elsewhere have launched or expanded preschool programs for low-income children, but the GOP majority in Congress has been cool to the idea of new federal investment.

Some studies have suggested that children enrolled in high-quality preschool gain lifelong benefits, such as better jobs, higher wages and a lower likelihood of getting involved in the criminal justice system or receiving social services.

Economists such as Ben Bernanke and Nobel laureate James Heckman have argued that the investments in early-childhood education have had a better return than Wall Street’s average since World War II.

But a large-scale study of nearly 5,000 children enrolled in Head Start, the federal government’s early-childhood program for low-income children from birth to age 5, found that progress in literacy among those children fades by the end of third grade. Some have seized on that study to suggest that heavy investment in preschool might not be cost-effective.

Shriver’s late father, Sargent Shriver, started Head Start as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program.

In addition to the presidential contest, SCAN is lobbying at the state and local levels to expand early-childhood education programs. In 2014, it helped pass a ballot initiative that created universal pre-kindergarten in Seattle. It is now promoting a similar measure in King County, the greater metropolitan area surrounding Seattle.

SCAN also is lobbying members of Congress as they rewrite No Child Left Behind, the main federal education law, seeking to get early-childhood education provisions into any new legislation.