Fundamental to the American experience is the belief that our children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, have the opportunity to reach whatever heights they seek. The surest, most-effective way to provide children with the opportunity to rise above their circumstances is to create a pathway to success through early childhood education.
Support of early childhood education is a strategic investment to help broaden the opportunities for social and economic mobility among at-risk children. By starting early, an investment in education can help ensure that more children have the tools they need to succeed.
This is especially relevant as we are already experiencing a very real “skills gap” in North Carolina due to our increasingly technology- and knowledge-driven economy. If we want to ensure we have a future workforce with the skills we will need to continue to grow and strengthen our economy, we need an educational structure designed to develop those skills.
As a banker, I look at the numbers to understand the challenges to job growth and sustained economic security our state is facing.
Right now, 22 percent of our high school students do not graduate on time, 63 percent of our eighth-graders are below grade level in math and 66 percent of our fourth-graders do not read at grade level. The precursor to these problems occurs much earlier – 60 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds across the nation do not have the basic skills needed for kindergarten – such as counting to 10 and recognizing letters in the alphabet.
That’s bad news for our kids and our economy. The good news is that extensive research from numerous programs, including those in our state, shows that children who participated in quality early learning programs, compared with nonparticipating children, were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school, 42 percent more likely to have been consistently employed, four times more likely to have earned a degree by age 30 and earn 36 percent more as adults.
Even better news? North Carolina businesses and our economy do not have to wait 20 years to reap the returns on investment from quality early learning programs. In addition, we can minimize the income disparities that influence a child’s chances of success and rebuild social trust in the American dream by seeing that children do well in school.
According to a report from the business leaders group, America’s Edge, every $1 invested in early learning in North Carolina generates a total return of $1.91 in sales of local goods and services. In fact, this level of economic activity for our state is better than investments in transportation, construction, wholesale and retail trade, and manufacturing.
A key factor in this economic equation is the quality of these early learning programs. The most effective have highly skilled teachers who are appropriately compensated for what they know and do. They have small class sizes with low child-to- staff ratios to ensure each child gets sufficient attention. They offer comprehensive and age-appropriate curricula. And they include screening and referral services for kids who need extra help for developmental, health or behavior problems.
So what will it take to bring more high-quality early learning to more North Carolina kids? Part of the solution lies in Gov. Pat McCrory’s vision for a continuous education system – not one built in silos. Investing in high-quality early learning gives children the foundation they need for ongoing academic success and college and career readiness.
Our state spending should help our students achieve success as they continue through our entire education system and enter the workforce prepared with the skills our businesses need them to have. Quality early learning programs meet that test.
Paula Fryland is the Regional President of Raleigh and Eastern Carolina PNC Bank.