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Investing in early-childhood education benefits all of us

By Randolph Voller

“Early childhood education has a tremendous impact on the national economic security and the viability of the American dream.” – U.S. Chamber of Commerce
As a Pittsboro businessman and its mayor, the above words resonate with me. More and more, business and community leaders are becoming advocates for young children. We know early-childhood investments are critical to keeping the United States competitive in a global market. After all, our future workers are today’s children. Building a strong and productive labor force largely depends on investing in high-quality early-childhood education programs today.
Last year, I had the opportunity with my fellow Chatham County mayors from Goldston and Siler City to attend a regional conference as guests of Genevieve Megginson, executive director for the Chatham County Partnership for Children. We were impressed with the presentations and the turnout. And we learned.
For example, 90 percent of brain development occurs between birth and 5 years old. Neuroscience demonstrates that early experiences shape the child’s brain, providing either a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, health and behavior. A strong foundation helps ensure that children develop the academic and social skills, such as cooperation, patience, hard work and persistence, that lead to responsible citizenship, economic productivity, strong communities and a sustainable society. Healthy brain development depends on stable, responsive relationships with caring adults at home and in quality child-care settings.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has shown that early-childhood development heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and society at large. His research proves that investing in early-childhood development can lead to significant economic gains for society – an average of 10 percent per year through increased personal achievement and social productivity. In addition to saving money, early-childhood investment is more effective than later remediation, such as school interventions, juvenile justice or job training. In the short term, studies confirm that children who attend early-childhood programs have better language skills, math skills, graduation rates, SAT scores and behavior. As adults, program participants are less likely to engage in crime or rely on welfare. They are more likely than non-participants to graduate high school, attend college, earn more and own a home.
We also learned from an economist at the University of Oklahoma that, over time, investments in our children outperform the standard economic indicators and metrics for Wall Street – by a significant margin.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has just issued a new report called “Ready, Set, Go! Why Business Should Support Early Childhood Education.” The report recommends that government and businesses support the development of high-quality early-childhood education programs with highly skilled teachers; small class sizes with low teacher-to-student ratios; stimulating curricula that address children’s academic, social and emotional development; integrated early-learning systems for children from birth to age 5; and seamless transitions from preschool to elementary school. They also emphasize that effective programs partner with parents and community agencies to provide greater access to family support and health programs, such as home visits, parent education, immunizations and developmental screenings.
Fortunately, North Carolina is an acknowledged leader in effective statewide early-childhood systems with Smart Start and More at Four. The chamber report highlights North Carolina’s national models as one of five promising practices in the United States. Unfortunately, even as N.C.’s population of young children increases, funding for early-childhood programs like Smart Start has been declining for the past decade. The consequences are magnified further, as the percentage of our children living in poverty has increased significantly, to almost 25 percent in North Carolina and 18 percent in Chatham County. These are the very children that benefit most from high-quality early-childhood programs.
Our public leaders face many difficult budget decisions with the economic recession and the state-budget deficit. Cutting effective early-childhood programs hurts all of us. Our future depends on ensuring that today’s children, who will be the next generation of leaders, workers, parents and taxpayers, become responsible, productive and successful adults.
So in a nutshell, if we all believe that our children are priceless, then it follows that the return on investment in them is infinite.
Don’t shortchange our future. Invest in our children today.

Randolph Voller is mayor of Pittsboro and a board member of the state of N.C. Juvenile Justice Planning Committee.

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