Investing in early childhood education is similar to investing in the stock market: it’s high risk, but also high return, speakers at N.C. State University’s Emerging Issues forum argued on Tuesday.
Politicians, economists, academics and education advocates gathered to discuss the link between preschool programs and benefits to North Carolina’s economy. They talked about how early education can help bridge a growing gap between rural and urban communities and between those who do and don’t have technological skills needed for many of today’s jobs in North Carolina.
The forum has brought people together since 1986 to discuss important issues and challenges in the state.
For the next two years, N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues will focus on “kidonomics” and how early education is crucial to North Carolina’s economy.
Early education efforts have both short- and long-term fiscal benefits for families, governments and the general public, said Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. These including reducing crime rates and child abuse, increasing a mother’s earnings and tax revenue and reducing the need for public assistance, he said.
Poverty levels in North Carolina have struggled to return to pre-recession levels, which has affected children more than other age groups, according to U.S. Census data. In 2013, one in four children in the state were living at or below the federal poverty level, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The same year, 18 percent of North Carolina’s population lived in poverty.
Grunewald posed the question: What if the financial aid model used in higher education was applied to early learning, to make quality education opportunities available to all children based on need?
During a speech at the forum, Gov. Roy Cooper said North Carolina used to be “the state that people came to see when they were formulating their early childhood education programs” but has “fallen behind with our support for early childhood education.”
“It is a long-term investment in our future. It is preventive care,” the Democratic governor said.
During a panel discussion on North Carolina’s “crib to career” workforce pipeline, speakers noted some of the barriers to children’s success, including a lack of large private employers in rural areas and the need for more collaboration between the state, local governments and community organizations.
“All of us in county government right now are extraordinarily concerned about the growth that we’re seeing in the need for social services across the board,” said Page Lemel, vice chair of Transylvania County’s board of commissioners, pointing to foster care and opioid abuse. “So much of North Carolina is still very rural. We’ve lost a lot of our manufacturing jobs, but counties in particular in rural areas are starving for options.”
Aside from jobs, losing large employers in rural communities affects opportunities such as employer-sponsored education, Lemel said.
“We know for a fact that we cannot continue to afford the back-end results of our unwillingness to commit and invest on the front end,” she said.