Taking advantage of consensus on importance of pre-K

A recent bipartisan poll found that voters of all parties share a top national priority: investing in early childhood education.

For the first time in three years, the most important issue in the poll is to make sure children get a strong start in life, followed by the need to improve the quality of public education. Jobs, which in earlier polls placed first, fell to third place. The bipartisan team of Public Opinions Strategies (R) and Hart Research (D) conducted the poll. The poll was released by the First Five Years Fund in partnership with the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

Fortunately, I am part of a company that has long prioritized investments in early learning. In 2004, PNC launched Grow Up Great, a $350 million early childhood education initiative that’s making a difference for children throughout our footprint.

North Carolina has high-quality early-learning programs that produce good results. Duke University researchers found that N.C. third-graders had higher reading and math scores and lower special education placements in counties that spent more money on Smart Start and NC PreK. Unfortunately, far too few children benefit. Only 21 percent of our 4-year-olds are enrolled in NC PreK.

By 2020, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require some post-secondary education. Yet the majority of our fourth-graders are not proficient in a key predictor of future academic success: reading. Raleigh groups such as Wake Up and Read are working on this issue, but there is an urgent need for community consensus and action.

N.C. employers say they have trouble finding people with the right skills. Six out of 10 N.C. employers reported communications skills gaps among job applicants, and close to half reported deficiencies in critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

The most effective way to address these challenges is throughout a child’s early life, when 85 percent of brain development occurs. As Nobel Laureate Professor James J. Heckman says, “Human capital begins at birth. The foundation for school, career and life success is largely determined through the development of cognitive and character skills beginning in children’s earliest years.”

It makes sense. Children’s earliest experiences determine how their brains are wired. Brain development is not predetermined. It occurs in the context of relationships, experiences and environments. Harvard University pediatrician Jack Shonkoff puts it this way, “Brains are built, not born.”

Polls like this one make it clear that voters understand these core concepts and want action.

More than three-fourths of American voters support increasing federal investment to help states expand access to high-quality early childhood programs for low- and moderate-income families. That sentiment echoes across political lines: 59 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Independents and 94 percent of Democrats say states must expand access. Seventy-four percent of voters say they are willing to fund pre-K as long as there is return on investment.

But perhaps most significantly for an upcoming election year, 84 percent of voters believe a candidate who supports early childhood education is looking out for working- and middle-class families.

North Carolina has a long history of embracing early learning and education as a pillar of the state’s prosperity and quality of life. Like respondents to the poll, generations of North Carolinians have wanted quality education for their young children. They understand that a good education can lead to a better life and employment opportunities.

We need to know what our community, corporate and political leaders are doing to support quality early education. With the stakes so high and with such clear results from the poll, it’s important for each of us to do all we can to support the education of our youngest citizens.

Jim Hansen is regional president for Eastern North Carolina for PNC Bank.