By Randy Laszewski For the past eight years, more than 1,000 business leaders have banded together to champion quality early childhood education as a vital first step for building our future workforce. Virtually all of the Republicans and Democrats we've met with have agreed that long-term academic achievement often depends on what happens in the first five years of a child's life. And virtually all have voiced support for making quality preschool in particular available for more children.
We're now at a pivotal point for making that happen as Congress charts a course for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While 32 Republican and Democratic governors have proposed or signed into law major expansions of state preschool programs in the past two years, this federal legislation could improve the quality of, and access to, early learning opportunities for children nationwide.
With all of this in mind, I'm urging my Tennessee senator, Lamar Alexander, and his congressional colleagues to prioritize funding for early education as they develop proposals to overhaul ESEA. While I certainly love kids, my driving motivation comes down to economics. If children aren’t prepared for kindergarten, they’ll continue heading off to school without learning how to read, write or work well with others. That will lead to more dropouts and more young people who aren’t prepared for postsecondary education and decent jobs. As a result, U.S. companies will continue spending billions of every year to "retrain" workers who aren’t qualified for the careers that will drive our economy forward.
Like "academic" skills, all of these traits are vital for most workers in our knowledge-based economy, and certainly for those in the Nashville office of the international accounting firm where I serve as managing partner. While I suppose it's possible to develop these traits during later years of schooling, it's absolutely foolish to lose the opportunity to do so in these early and most important years.
According to research shared in a recent brief from the business leaders group, ReadyNation, young children's brains develop 700 synapses — the neural connections that support learning and skills — every second. The brief also notes the learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids can show up at 9 months of age, and that disadvantaged children can start kindergarten as much as 18 months behind their peers. Many of these children never catch up, and are at an increased risk of dropping out of high school.
But this isn't just a problem for kids living in poverty. Nationwide, the annual cost of private preschool runs from about $4,500 to more than $12,000, which is well out of reach for many working families. You might even argue "middle class" families headed by two working wage earners are in the toughest position because they earn too much to qualify for programs such as Head Start and too little to pay for high quality private preschool.
Which is where a greater funding stream — indeed a federal-state partnership — could come in. Most state preschool programs can't come close to enrolling the thousands of children who are eligible. (I know that in my own state of Tennessee, only 8 percent of 3-year-olds and 32 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in either Head Start or our state program.) Most programs are also struggling to offer the quality experiences that will likely lead to higher educational outcomes, such as small classes where all kids get personalized attention, comprehensive early learning standards and teachers with early education training.
As a Republican with a vested interest in the quality of our workforce, I know that making more federal money available to improve these programs and expand access to more low and moderate-income families would be a smart step for the economy. That’s a bottom-line impact that our entire nation can get behind as we shape the education policies that will move us forward.
Randy Laszewski is a managing partner at KPMG in Nashville. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.