Early Childhood Education: Today's Investment, Tomorrow's Hope

Early Childhood Education: Today's Investment, Tomorrow's Hope

The verdict is in: high-quality early childhood education matters. It prepares children for success in school and in life. It can make a difference not only for the children enrolled but also for their families, for neighborhoods, for the economic viability of our region, and our state, for all of us.

Among the compelling evidence for this proposition is research conducted by Dr. John Fantuzzo of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Fantuzzo has been closely following a group of Philadelphia children through the second grade, a third of whom have lived with three or more burdens such as poverty, lead exposure, inadequate prenatal care, and even homelessness. Dr. Fantuzzo's research demonstrates that high quality early childhood educational experiences actually counteract the negative impact of these risk factors on children's abilities to achieve. Other studies indicate that such protective effects can last into adulthood.

Leading economists have concluded that early childhood education improves the functioning of public schools, boosts the quality and earning power of the workforce, and reduces crime and dependence on public assistance. Local business leaders and policymakers will have the opportunity to discuss the economic case for early childhood investments with Federal Reserve Bank economic analyst Rob Grunewald at an April 28th forum hosted by the United Way, the Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL), the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. For every dollar invested in an early childhood development program highlighted last year by Mr. Grunewald in a PEL publication, more than $8 in benefits to participants and to society as a whole were realized. Research on other early childhood programs has yielded similar results.

With the support of the Annenberg Foundation, John and Chara Haas Trust, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the William Penn Foundation, United Way has made a major investment in early childhood development through its Early 2 Learn initiative. Recognizing that children benefit most when their early childhood education experiences are of high quality, we have made quality improvement a focus of our work. The "Preschool Plus" component of Early 2 Learn applies research-based methods to bettering outcomes for the more than 2,500 young children served at participating early childhood centers. Forty- two percent of Early 2 Learn centers have already earned accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children “ a rate of accreditation four times the national average.

Because of the strong results we have achieved, United Way is expanding our work in this area. It is clear, however, that action is needed on a much wider scale.

Beginning in 2008, Pennsylvania will be subject to enormous financial penalties pursuant to the federal No Child Left Behind Act unless our children's standardized testing scores rise significantly. Pennsylvania already lags behind 25 states and Washington, D.C., in the percentage of residents who complete high school; it is well below the national average with respect to its percentage of college graduates. Meanwhile, states across the country and across the river are acting upon the evidence for public investment in early childhood development. Pennsylvania simply cannot afford to wait.

First, the business community in our region can use its considerable clout to make a difference. Although many business leaders have been strong advocates for early childhood education, puncturing the inertia that has stopped Pennsylvania from making more progress may require the involvement of the whole business community.

Next, our elected officials must act decisively in support of early childhood education. Passing the governor's proposed fiscal year 2006-07 budgets for the Departments of Education and Public Welfare, which substantially increase funding for access and quality, is a good place to start.

Finally, concrete methods and techniques for building high- quality programs and expanding access are essential to turn the growing consensus in support of early childhood education into a reality. Southeastern Pennsylvania is rich in academic, human service, philanthropic and advocacy institutions, including United Way, that are doing significant work in this area. We can work together to derive and put into practice the very best strategies for achieving results. Doing so will provide guidance to policymakers and support them in making early childhood education the priority it needs to be.

Alba Martinez has been president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania since June 2004. Prior to joining United Way, she served for more than four years as commissioner of the Department of Human Services of the City of Philadelphia and for eight years as executive director of the nonprofit social services agency Congreso de los Latinos Unidos.