James E. Rohr / We must invest in early childhood education

Early childhood education pays off for individuals and society

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Fundamental to the American experience is the belief that our children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, have the opportunity to reach whatever heights to which they aspire. The surest, most effective way to provide children with the opportunity to reach their full potential is to create a pathway to success through early childhood education.

Gov. Tom Corbett's recently passed budget increased support for early education by $11.4 million, which included $5 million more for Early Intervention, $4.5 million more for Pre-K Counts and $1.9 million more for Head Start Supplemental Assistance. We thank the governor for pledging increased resources on behalf of the commonwealth's youngest learners and doing so in a difficult budget environment. For every dollar spent on a quality pre-k education, there is as much as a $16 return to society, and an investment in school readiness can help ensure that more disadvantaged children have the tools they need to succeed in school and life.

Unfortunately, too many children are born into situations that leave them without access to such programs. Underserved 5-year-olds enter kindergarten with the vocabulary of an average 3-1/2 year-old. They start school with an 18-month disadvantage, and the gap widens instead of narrowing as they move into first and second grades. By the time they are in third and fourth grade, they often can't do math or read at grade level. Bridging this gap is more difficult and expensive once it is created.

It is in our interest to make sure this achievement fissure never occurs. When at-risk children are prepared for school they are more likely to graduate, obtain meaningful jobs and make valuable contributions to their communities. Education is the key to their social and economic mobility.

At the same time, an improvement in children's outcomes means we are less likely to incur the costs of them not succeeding. If we provide quality early education now, Pennsylvania won't have to spend nearly as much money later on special education, remedial job training, correctional facilities and other outlays that are a drain on economic growth.

Gov. Corbett's budget makes another important investment in preparing future generations for the challenges ahead. Workforce preparedness has gained relevance as we compete in a world economy fueled increasingly by knowledge and skills. The foundation for these fundamental skills is set in the early years. If we are to have a well-educated workforce, we must make the investment in young children now.

Recognizing the importance of early childhood education, in 2004 PNC launched Grow Up Great -- a $350 million multiyear, bilingual initiative for children from birth to age 5. Through the program, we emphasize the first five years of life and, working with our partners, provide innovative opportunities that assist families and educators to enhance children's learning and development. In addition, our collaborative efforts have helped expand young children's access to educational programming.

The next opportunity to enhance early childhood education rests with legislation drafted by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. It would provide all children access to high-quality early learning programs and is expected to contain major elements of President Barack Obama's early education plan. We are encouraged to see a renewed focus on school readiness on the state and national levels.

Expanding access and improving the quality of early childhood education prepares more children for the educational and economic challenges they will face as they become the workforce of tomorrow. It also allows us to dissolve barriers that prevent too many children from realizing their full potential. Through targeted investments in school readiness now, we make it possible for more children to succeed, which is good for the next generation of Americans and for us all.

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James E. Rohr is executive chairman of The PNC Financial Services Group.


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