Early Childhood

‘Summit’ Links Preschool to Economic Success

By Linda Jacobson — September 11, 2007 5 min read
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Hoping to win over skeptical policymakers, leaders from the business, philanthropic, and political arenas gathered here this week to strengthen their message that spending money on early-childhood education will improve high school graduation rates and help keep the United States economically strong.

“We’re no longer competing just with Colorado; we’re competing with China,” said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, one of three governors to speak at the Telluride event. “We need to challenge every single educator to create the next engineer.”

Participants learned, however, that they face significant challenges in persuading more business leaders to buy into the cause of expanding strong preschool programs, particularly for children considered at high risk for later academic or social problems.

“I can tell you this is not the top topic in any business meeting,” said Phyllis Eisen, a senior vice president of the Manufacturing Institute of the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers. “Their stockholders aren’t saying, ‘Are you worried about early-childhood education? Do you have a plan?’ ”

‘Building Human Capital’

Organizers of the three-day Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment called it a “Davos forum on building human capital” through spending on early-childhood education, comparing the event to the annual gathering of economic and government leaders held in that Alpine village in Switzerland.

Robert H. Dugger, an investment-company manager who leads the Partnership for America’s Economic Success—a consortium of business leaders, economists, and philanthropists which sponsored the event along with the local Telluride Foundation—said the list of participants could be considered “the highest-powered assemblage of talent” to address the subject of preschool and other services for children from disadvantaged families.

Colorado was also a fitting place for the conference, participants said, noting that Denver is implementing a new tax-funded initiative that will expand access to preschool.

“By January, we’re going to be able to tell every family in Denver that they can have universal preschool on a sliding scale,” Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, a Democrat, told the group.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. talked about how preschoolers deemed at risk who have attended the state’s preschool program graduate from high school at a higher rate than the typical Colorado student.

“We still don’t fully fund this,” said the Democrat, adding that lawmakers say the state can’t afford it.

Arthur J. Rolnick, a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a champion of early-childhood education, described a new business-financed scholarship and mentoring program in an area of St. Paul that will provide incentives for parents to send their children to high-quality preschool programs. As an economist, he believes the market will respond by opening programs in the targeted area.

Participants also worked to compile a list of “Telluride principles” to guide their future work. And plans are under way to make this an annual meeting, similar to the way other resort towns, such as Aspen, Colo., and Jackson Hole, Wyo., have become gathering spots for influential leaders.

‘What We Need Now’

Gov. Ritter said that in addition to budget concerns, some state legislators argue that preschool education and child care are the responsibility of parents, not of government.

But Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, a Democrat, said that sentiment in her state is diminishing.

She cited a recent study showing that half of all Kansas 5-year-olds were not ready to meet the expectations for kindergarten. “We can never catch some of those kids up,” she said.

Money spent on K-12 is being wasted because children are not prepared in the early years, Gov. Sebelius argued. “What we need now is the political will,” she said.

Others at the conference said they are having trouble communicating the message that preschool education has a payoff.

Paul Hirschbiel, the chairman of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and the owner of an investment-consulting business, said that the public and lawmakers might be tiring of hearing about the return on investment from the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, begun in Michigan in the 1960s. The study is probably used more than any other to make the case for expanding preschool programs, because of its finding that participation in such programs is linked to lower rates of crime and higher educational attainment later in life.

“With the data that’s out there, [the research available is] starting to feel a little thin,” he said.

Roger Neugebauer, who publishes a magazine for early-childhood leaders called Exchange, said some preschool advocates are concerned that making the argument that increasing early-childhood-education services will lead to a more educated workforce implies that elementary school academics should be pushed down to 3- and 4-year-olds.

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, cautioned the group against expecting huge benefits when programs, such as the Perry Preschool Project, are spread to more children.

“If Head Start is the best estimate of what we can expect when we go to scale, we have a large problem,” he said, noting that the federal preschool program has been shown to have only “modest effects” on children’s readiness for school.

He added that the growth of public pre-K programs in the states shows that “states felt that they needed something else” other than Head Start.

Finally, several attendees acknowledged that many business leaders are not interested in a strategy that won’t pay off for 20 years or more. For business executives, current workforce needs are likely to be paramount.

In Connecticut, for example, companies are concerned that baby boomers are retiring and that younger workers are moving out of the state, said Robert W. Santy, the president of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, which promotes the state as a favorable place to do business.

“We have an immediate workforce need,” he said.

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