Childhood development is economic development

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Across Michigan, many business leaders are embracing the fact that supporting families in the earliest and most important years of their children’s development helps the short- and long-term health of our economy.

What happens in early childhood is the foundation for everything that follows. By age 5, as much as 90 percent of a child’s intellectual and emotional brain wiring has been set for life. Early experiences that are nurturing fire the synapses that determine intelligence and behavior. When a young child’s life is marked by poverty and deprivation, the brain fails to grow at its optimum rate, and the damage can be long lasting.

It’s clear that Michigan needs to build a skilled and educated work force to compete in the global economy. To do that, all Michigan children must arrive at school healthy and ready to succeed.

Michigan’s youngest residents are falling behind. One-third of our infants and toddlers are not fully immunized. An estimated 40,000 4-year-olds in Michigan qualify for, but do not receive, publicly subsidized preschool. A survey of kindergarten teachers found that, on average, 35 percent of the 150,000 Michigan children entering kindergarten each year are not ready to learn. The teachers cite a lack of opportunity to attend a preschool program as a primary factor in these children starting school already behind their peers. Quality preschool is but one of several strategies that makes a huge difference.

A group of business, philanthropic and community leaders in Kent County came together several years ago to form First Steps, a community partnership that is building a coordinated system of quality early childhood services for children from birth to 5. Our vision is simple: Every child will enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life. We are making significant progress in our community, but there is much work that remains.

As businesspeople, we see investment in early childhood as investment in economic development. Young children are to Michigan what research and development are to 21st century corporations — you must invest in both to maximize future results. Leading economists agree that early investments are essential: “Dollars invested in early childhood development yield extraordinary public returns,” according to two highly regarded economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. For every $1 invested in high-quality early care and education, we can save $17 in welfare, criminal justice and other social costs. The benefits are immediate: Michigan saved $1.1 billion last year alone because of school readiness efforts since 1984.

Employers are sensitive to state and local taxes. More than $200 million of the K-12 budget are spent because grades are repeated and special education must be extended to preventable learning disabilities. Eleven percent of Michigan kindergarteners repeat this grade at a cost to the state of $100 million a year. Another $200 million is spent on juvenile corrections that can be traced to inadequate care and education before kindergarten. The state is incurring costs — borne by taxpaying employers and families — that are unnecessary.

A business case can also be made for strategic reform. A high-level, consolidated state office of early childhood could result in more efficient and accountable delivery of early childhood health and education services. The private sector must do its part by expanding its charitable commitment to efforts such as those that offer parents and caregivers supports to be children’s first and best teachers in the early years.

We have a tremendous opportunity in 2011 to elevate the business case for early childhood investment to a higher level of statewide priority. A new governor and new legislature can score an early and crucial win by doing so.

Susan Broman is president of the Steelcase Foundation. Lew Chamberlin is managing partner and CEO of the West Michigan Whitecaps. Sue Jandernoa is a local philanthropist and former teacher. All three serve on the First Steps Commission and Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan.

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