Education is the key

By Ted Schmidt

Special to The Vindicator

Fundamental to the American experience is the belief that all children should have the opportunity to realize their dreams. The surest, most-effective way to provide them with the opportunity to reach their full potential is to create a pathway to success through early childhood education.

Currently, Ohio lawmakers are deliberating the state budget for the next two years, and how to spend a projected increase in revenues. Many of our state legislators have recognized the need to prioritize early childhood education during this discussion, resulting in a proposed $30 million increase in early education funding. PNC supports that investment as a strong start toward increasing kindergarten readiness and the lifetime success of Ohio’s children.

Getting an early start

Through these increased investments, our state leaders also will position Ohio to be competitive for potential federal investments of up to $100 million per year as part of President Obama’s proposed Preschool for All initiative. The president’s proposal, which calls for universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds from disadvantaged families, recognizes the research that supports the importance of starting early. With such compelling evidence in its favor, an investment in early education 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 without access to quality early education programs. Underserved 5-year-olds enter kindergarten with the vocabulary of an average 31/2-year-old. In Ohio, only a small percentage of the 139,000 low-income preschool aged children are being served in high-quality preschool programs, and that lack of access is translating to a growing kindergarten readiness gap and lagging third-grade reading scores. In 2011, only 25 percent of low-income children entered kindergarten fully ready to learn, and state data show most of those children will not catch up by third grade.

It is in our interest to ensure this achievement fissure never occurs. When at-risk children are prepared for school they are more likely to experience social and economic mobility as they graduate, obtain meaningful jobs and do well over time. If we provide quality early education now, Ohio won’t have to spend nearly as much later on special education, remedial job training, correctional facilities and other outlays that are a drain on economic growth. Research shows that for every dollar spent on a quality pre-K education, the return to society is up to $16.

As it is, too many families across the income spectrum have trouble affording quality pre-K. Though the need for financial assistance is great, total support among states for pre-K in the 2011-2012 school year decreased by nearly $500 million, resulting in a drop of approximately $450 per pre-K student [source: NIEER]. This is the third consecutive year that total states’ spending on pre-K has declined.

Forward-thinking legislators on both sides of the aisle have committed to offer more children a quality pre-K experience. They understand the risks Ohio faces by not 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. 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 multi-year, multi-lingual program for children from birth to age 5. Locally, PNC has awarded over $225,000 in grants to partner agencies and our employees have logged 2,000 volunteer hours in support of local kindergarten readiness programs and initiatives.

The right decision

As the state budget is set, we encourage our state legislative leaders and Gov. Kasich to make the right decision for our children, our workforce and our future by making increased investments in early education a top priority.

With a targeted investment in early education reaching a greater number of children, we will help dissolve the barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential. When we make it possible for more children to succeed, we will have strengthened the next generation as well as our country.

Ted Schmidt is regional president of PNC. His office is in Youngstown.