When the two of us were graduated from high school, nobody seemed to be worrying about China or Brazil or India competing with us as an economy or in education. We took for granted that we were the best in the world in education and the economy and had no reason to believe that would ever change. Everyone seemed to be able to get a job — and to do so with not much more than the bare basics of education.
That is true no more. Never will be again.
Yes, we are making real progress in both education and the economy in Florida, but we would be foolish to think the future is assured. It isn’t. We remain a great distance from the “promised land” of every child having a real chance to reach the American Dream when 46 percent of our public school 10th graders cannot read at grade level — and three of four 17- to 24-year-olds cannot enter the American military, because of an academic problem, a physical problem, a substance-abuse problem or a criminal-justice problem.
When we give all children a real chance to fulfill their potential, we help all of us. If we want safe and secure neighborhoods, if we want less crime, if we want more people to grow up to own homes and cars, and more people to share the basic costs of societal well-being, then we need to know of the quite-extraordinary evidence of the power of early investment and the power to grow children who dream and have a real chance to achieve those dreams.
We saw this headline in a recent New York Times: “The time to start education isn’t prekindergarten, it’s birth.” Actually, it is before birth. Moreover, “education” means far more than what goes on in classrooms. It means, first of all, knowledgeable, caring, loving, nurturing parents. Indeed, nothing is more important.
Eighty-five percent of brain growth occurs by the time a child is 3. Shouldn’t that be a wake-up call for early investment in quality?
Developing a globally competitive workforce is at the core of our state’s economic future. The foundation of that workforce begins with education. Building a strong, educated workforce cannot begin when children are in the third grade or eighth grade or 11th grade.
Longitudinal studies remind us so clearly that children who get the right basics of health, education, nurturing and love in their earliest years are far more likely to graduate from high school and college, to gain and maintain employment, and to have higher annual earnings. They also are significantly less likely to wind up in our courts and jails and to require long-term public assistance.
Investing in high-quality early basics is investing in our workforce and our economy.
Recently, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and The Children’s Movement of Florida — in partnership with Florida TaxWatch and the Florida Council of 100 as well as the Florida Children’s Forum and United Way — brought together more than 150 business and civic leaders (beginning with Gov. Rick Scott) from across Florida to highlight the important role that our state’s business community can play in helping advance the state of early childhood education in Florida.
The principal speaker was Dr. Pat Levitt of the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles; he’s one of our country’s great figures in neuroscience and the brain and what happens in the earliest learning years. His message: The enormous scientific research behind brain development tells us so clearly that investment in high-quality early learning is critical for developing the skills essential for life-long learning and a skilled and competitive workforce.
It was at this event that the Florida Chamber Foundation announced a Business Alliance on Early Learning, bringing and energizing key business leaders from across Florida to insist on early learning progress.
That’s a major and important development, recognizing that Florida’s education and economic progress can be accelerated with smart investments in the early years of children’s lives.
But the journey is a long one, and we have a considerable distance to go. The wisest path to education reform in our country would be getting children off to a stronger start in life and in school.
We must continue to make wise and necessary investments to stimulate economic growth and job creation in Florida. One really smart way to do that is investing in the potential of our children — all our children.
Mark Wilson is the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. David Lawrence Jr. is the chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, and Education and Community Leadership Scholar at the University of Miami School of Education & Human Development.