Guest opinion: Montana must invest in quality early childhood services

2013-06-06T00:05:00Z Guest opinion: Montana must invest in quality early childhood servicesBy MIKE HALLIGAN The Billings Gazette
June 06, 2013 12:05 am  • 

It’s not rocket science: People are the Washington Companies’ competitive advantage. I suspect most successful business owners will tell you the same. Products and services are critical. So are efficiency-enhancing systems and technologies. But the people who are part of the Washington Companies are our “secret sauce” — the one element that no competitor can duplicate.

Obviously, then, we at the Washington Companies have a bottom-line interest in cultivating our companies’ most important resource — not only recruiting good people but investing in their growth and development, so they can fulfill the potential we saw in them.

What’s true for our group of companies is true for our communities, our state and our nation. That is why we— and many others in the business community — believe that investing in our youngest children must be a priority. We all share a bottom-line interest in their success.

And rarely have we had the luxury of making an investment decision armed with as much information as we have on the economic value of investing in early care and education. These benefits ultimately accrue to our entire economy — in other words, to us all.

Legislative support

We see the tangible return on investments in young children not just on a national level but here in Montana. As Gov. Steve Bullock noted in his State of the State address, every dollar we invest in early childhood education returns up to $9 to our communities. I applaud the governor and the Legislature for approving $2 million to fund early childhood programs, yet we still have far to go. Why? Early childhood programs are the foundation for a skilled workforce, which is key not only to our companies’ success but to our economic growth and competitiveness. We know that workers who possess skills for success also gain the earning power to buy more goods and services and help drive economic growth.

Here in Montana, quality early learning will ultimately determine whether we can maintain our relatively low unemployment rate, and it impacts our ability as a state to attract young families and good workers. While much attention has rightly focused on improving the education of young people at the K-12 and postsecondary level, it is critically important to establish the foundation for success during a child’s first five years.

What happens during those early years — whether children have regular access to decent health care (including prenatal care for mothers); books in the home that parents read to them; opportunities to develop social-emotional skills, habits such as self-discipline, persistence and cooperation; and early education — largely determines whether they arrive at kindergarten ready to learn or already far behind.

Starting out behind

Children who start kindergarten behind their peers have difficulty catching up quickly. And children who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out before finishing high school. At a time when a high school diploma no longer brings a young person to the finish line for success, only the starting line, those who drop out have little chance of becoming the workers (or consumers) our economy requires, let alone living the productive lives we wish for all our children.

By contrast, research shows that disadvantaged children involved in early education perform better in math and English, are much more likely to graduate, are significantly less likely to be arrested as juveniles than peers who don’t have this opportunity and are more likely to find and retain jobs, purchase homes and be productive members of our communities. When Great Falls made just a modest investment in pre-K programs, it led to a dramatic improvement in kindergarten readiness, putting these children (and the community) on a path for a better future.

We believe so strongly in the importance of early education, health care and parental support efforts that we have joined more than 300 other businesses and organizations from across the country in signing an open letter to President Obama expressing business support for programs that deliver proven long-term benefits for young children.

It’s not rocket science. But it’s the way we grow rocket scientists. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart one.

Mike Halligan is executive director Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation in Missoula.

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