Investing in kids crucial

March 6, 2009
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America must invest in its littlest citizens if it hopes to remain globally competitive in the future, a North Carolina consultant plans to tell the Grand Rapids business community on Wednesday.

“Where you’ve seen major progress on funding in early education in places like Oklahoma and North Carolina and some other examples is because the business community has become very actively engaged, not just writing letters, but calling on legislators and explaining the importance of the issue from an economic standpoint,” said Bill Millett, president of Scope View Strategic Advantage in Charlotte, N.C.

Millett is scheduled to make two stops in West Michigan during a two-week speaking tour of the state, sponsored by Great Start Collaborative, a state organization focusing on health and education in early childhood. His first appearance is set for 7:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Eberhard Center on Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus in Grand Rapids. He is also scheduled to speak at 7:30 a.m. Friday at the GVSU Alumni House on the Allendale campus.

Both presentations are free and open to the public, but RSVPs are requested: 632-1011 or aturner-thole@waybetterunitedway.org for the Kent County event or jshangle@oaisd.org for the Ottawa County event.

Millett said a focus on early childhood education, quality child care and health are crucial if youngsters are to arrive at the school steps ready and able to learn.

“It is also about the collective future of Michigan as a competitive economic vitality, as a viable economic commodity,” he said. “And if those investments are not made in 2009, then in 2032, ’33, things will be even weaker.”

A former economic development director for the city of Charlotte, Millett has held a slew of  leadership positions in the field: board of the National Association of Development Organizations; past president of the Carolina Economic Development Association; charter president, Southeast Community Development Association; past member, Governor's Committee on Local Government; and chair, Regional Council Executive Directors Association.

He said he plans to present the business case in favor of investment in early childhood initiatives. Among the sources he cites are:

The Business Roundtable, composed of the CEOs of 160 leading U.S. companies: “In today’s world, where education and skill levels determine future earnings, the economic and social costs to individuals, communities and the nation of not taking action on early childhood education are far too great to ignore.”

Committee for Economic Development: “Early childhood education, in contrast, appears to offer greater potential returns and substantially less risk. CED encourages local development policy-makers to view early childhood education as a development tool and appreciate its lasting benefits. It is time that early education is implemented with the same energy, urgency and funding that is currently being applied to other less-promising projects.”

Public polling firm Zogby International: “Ultimately, unease about the American work force and the U.S.’s ability to compete in the global economy without a solid investment in education beginning in early childhood seems a potent rationale for business leaders to support investing in universal pre-school for all who want it.”

Millett is involved in North Carolina’s Smart Start program, which launched that state’s programs to raise the bar on early childhood in 1993 and has become a national model.

“It is not an easy sell,” Millett said, noting that an investment today won’t even begin to pay off for years. Yet, test scores of American students are sinking in math and science, and the country no longer leads the world in educational attainment.

According to a 2006 National Science Foundation analysis of doctorate degrees in the 20th century, foreign nationals earned 39 percent of science and engineering doctorates awarded in the U.S. from 1995 to 1999, compared to 16 percent from 1960 to 1964.

By the early 1990s, almost one in three of all U.S. doctorate degrees were awarded to foreign citizens, four out of five of them male and in the country on temporary visas. From 1995 to 1999, Asian nationals earned 44 percent of engineering doctorates and 22 percent of all science doctorates, the study stated, mostly from China, India, Korea and Taiwan.

“The Great Recession — it will eventually go away. But with Michigan and with North Carolina and other places, we have been in a diminished competitive status versus the rest of the world for a while now,” Millett said. “I think we have undervalued education. We most definitely have undervalued it compared to other countries that have eaten our market share in a number of marketplaces.”

Support for early childhood programs is tougher to come by in Michigan, he added, thanks to the Legislature’s term-limits that sap the political will to make decisions with a long-term impact.

“Where the early education needle has really moved is when the business community has gotten really involved, when you’ve got senior vice presidents in key corporations saying, ‘This is an important issue — important to the future of my company, important to the future of Kent County,’” Millett said.

“We may not see a payoff in a while, but this is part of where the knowledge infrastructure is going.”

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