AUGUSTA — When you think about segments of society that strongly support investing in early childhood development, the business community may not immediately come to mind.

But it should.

There is unmistakable, growing support for early childhood education and other programs among business leaders. Over the last several years, the business community has become an influential, unexpected champion for quality early education.

MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

This support comes at a time of an unprecedented wave of bipartisan energy behind early education. In the last three years alone, 32 governors have created or expanded prekindergarten programs in their respective states. This includes a nearly even split of Republicans and Democrats.

In recent years, Maine’s public pre-K programs have also experienced steady growth. Ten years ago, just 83 public schools offered pre-K. By the 2013-2014 school year, public pre-K was offered in 201 schools, as well as in 63 additional programs that are partnerships with local community child care providers, Head Start providers or both. The number of students enrolled in public pre-K has grown from 2,589 in 2007-2008 to 4,549 in 2012-2013.

In large part because of funding from a federal grant, the Maine Department of Education reports that an additional 44 pre-K classrooms will be added across Maine next school year. But even with this growth, public pre-K will serve less than half of Maine’s youngest learners.

While more progress is needed, Maine is moving in the right direction. Business leaders have helped spur this momentum in Maine and the nation. And nowhere was this support more evident than at the 2015 ReadyNation Global Business Summit, an event I attended earlier this month.

DIVERSE VOICES, COMMON THREAD

ReadyNation is an organization comprised of more than 1,300 business leaders – over 100 of whom are here in Maine – across diverse industries that want to strengthen business through proven investments in youth. I’m proud to say that I’m one of those members.

The summit, held in New York City, included over 250 businesspeople, policymakers and experts, convening to discuss and highlight ways the private sector is at the forefront of advancing the cause of early childhood.

Attendees heard from voices as varied as Jack Brennan, chairman emeritus of Vanguard; Fionnuala Walsh, senior vice president of Eli Lilly; Edward Melhuish, professor of education at Oxford University; Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff, co-directors of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, and Bob Llamas, executive vice president of Univision.

That’s a mere sampling of the dozens of speakers who came to New York to exchange ideas on the important topic of early childhood investment.

Whether the conversation dealt with engaging at the community level, business practices that can help employees foster early learning opportunities for children or the latest developments in brain science, there were common threads running through the crucial messages. Namely, that early childhood investments are not only a great way to help give our kids the best chance at success and happiness, while also promoting a lifelong culture of health, but they make good business sense as well.

BUSINESS LEADERS UNDERSTAND

Business leaders understand that investing in quality early education programs and policies is a way to strengthen the workforce, their customer base and the informed citizenry of the future.

They understand that cultivating kids’ literacy and math skills in early education programs will help produce the skilled workers they’ll need in the years to come.

They understand that University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman has estimated a 10-to-1 return on investment in quality early education for disadvantaged students.

They understand that high-quality early education can yield excellent results, as the Abecedarian Program in North Carolina did when randomly assigned, at-risk children wound up 42 percent more likely to be consistently employed as adults and four times more likely to graduate from a four-year college than non-participating children.

The ReadyNation Global Business Summit signals a growing movement. It’s a movement that pushes for policies and programs that will contribute to enriching the lives of children – as well as create better employees.

I came away from the Summit more certain than ever that one of the keys to making our economy, our state and our nation stronger is a commitment to invest in our youngest learners.

 


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