Editorial: Good for business/A call for leadership on pre-K

December 15, 2003

When Republicans in the Minnesota House pushed through cuts in Early Childhood Family Education and child care subsidies in 2003, those programs' defenders at the Legislature say one lobbying voice was conspicuous for its silence: The business community mutely watched it happen.

Early learning "hasn't risen up as an issue from our membership," said Laura Bordelon of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Compared with concerns about K-12 and higher ed, "there isn't a ton of interest" she said.

If that's so, Minnesota business owners don't know what's good for them. If the business community wants state government to be an ally in the pursuit of prosperity, it should back efforts to get all young children ready for school.

The Federal Reserve's Art Rolnick lays out the case in economic terms: Every dollar spent on preschool produces a 12 percent real rate of return, he says -- a number that, in the private sector, would start a venture capital stampede. Pre-K education does more than any other public investment to assure Minnesota businesses that their best edge on the competition -- a highly productive workforce -- will hold in the 21st century.

That analysis does not include the here-and-now benefits of available, affordable child care and preschool to today's working parents and the people who hire them. Those benefits alone have been reason enough for a handful of employers to operate on-site centers for employees' children, and more to subsidize vendors who provide such care. Those companies report improved worker retention, productivity and satisfaction. As one parent at Taylor Corp. said, her company's child care center has made her a better employee, because "the guilt isn't there."

But the legislators most devoted to the early childhood cause are not asking more businesses to become preschool providers. When the four leaders of the Legislature's bipartisan early childhood caucus were asked what they want from business, they answered resoundingly: leadership. Support for early childhood education ought to be prominent on businesses' agenda, at the Legislature, in their communities and among their employees.

Employers who hire young parents and know the strain in their lives ought to help banish the outmoded notion that until children reach kindergarten, their learning is solely a family's responsibility. That arbitrary divide ill fits what is now known about human learning and what is happening in modern families. Society's stake in what preschool children learn may be even greater than in what older children learn. Hard-working, hard-pressed parents, particularly those with low incomes, need and deserve help in educating young children.

Employer support can take many forms. On-site parenting education classes, referrals to child-care programs that offer high-quality education, rewards for parents who get their young children screened for developmental achievement -- those are just some of the possibilities.

But to be real leaders in promoting early learning, employers must think and act on behalf of everybody's children, not just those in their own corporate families. They should band together to make sure that all of the child care in their communities includes a high-quality preschool component. They should mount media campaigns that raise public awareness of the importance of early learning.

Fortunately, there are signs that pre-K is moving up on Minnesota's business priority list. The new head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, Charlie Weaver, says that his organization plans to give early childhood education more attention. Ready for K, a nonprofit, grass-roots organizing campaign, is hosting several briefings for business on the issue, and reports a positive response. Some of Minnesota's most prominent corporations -- General Mills, the St. Paul Companies, Best Buy, the Taylor Corp. among them -- are showing the way. Other businesses should follow their lead.