Mobilizing Business Champions for Children

What do Texas preschooler Owen Hernandez and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have in common?  As you’ll see during the Learning Lab<!--[if !supportNestedAnchors]--><!--[endif]-->, “Business Champions for Young Children,” at next month’s Fall Conference for Community Foundations in New Orleans, they both believe in the power of quality early learning to help children succeed in school and in life.

The bad news: From conception through the preschool years, children’s brains develop 700 synapses—the neural connections that enable them to learn—every second.  Because of this unique window of development, the achievement gap opens very early. By age three, children in higher income families have a vocabulary twice the size of low-income children.  By age five, youngsters can be 18 months behind their more advantaged peers.  Starting so far behind makes it much harder to meet the key benchmark of reading on grade level by third grade.  And those who don’t reach that target are much more likely to drop out, largely ending their chances of having productive careers.

So, if we want our students to complete high school, get a post-secondary education, and compete successfully in the world, we must start early.

The good news: We know how to do this.  The other good news: Business leaders are becoming public champions for early childhood, and we know how to help them use their clout to help children get a successful start.

Rigorous, randomized trial research has shown that certain interventions have both short and long-term benefits for the child, the family, and society. In particular, health care, parent mentoring, and early education are critical building blocks. All show large benefit-cost ratios with impacts on child abuse, child injuries, child and parent participation in crime, child and  parent educational achievement, employment, substance abuse, and other outcomes.

Because of this data, ReadyNation has been able to convince business leaders that we need to invest early in order to create the customers, employees, and neighbors we need. We have helped chambers of commerce and business roundtables from Maine to California, Alabama to New Mexico take public positions in support of early learning and convey that enthusiasm to policymakers. The National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce have weighed in.  PNC Financial Group has made early childhood its signature issue, with actions ranging from state advocacy to funding local programs and employee volunteers in early learning centers.  The H-E-B grocery store chain in Texas created a business advocacy coalition,  Raise Your Hand Texas, and uses its stores to promote literacy and good nutrition for young families. Business leaders in Erie, Penn., created Erie’s Future Fund to offer scholarships for early education modeled after the traditional higher education funds.  As a result, states and communities have made real progress even in a difficult budget environment—protecting programs from cuts, improving quality, and even increasing funds.

ReadyNation, a project of America’s Promise Alliance, is a partnership to mobilize business leaders in support of early childhood. We have worked in more than 30 states with business executives and groups. We also train advocates in how to create their own effective relationships with business.  Our website is the nexus of good ideas, successes, economic evidence, and experts on business engagement.

Community foundations can help businesses of all sizes take action. We hope you’ll join us in New Orleans to hear more success stories, including Telluride Foundation CEO Paul Major describing Colorado’s Executives Partnering to Invest in Kids.  We’ll tell you how to help your business community take actions to get children off to a good start.

Sara Watson is director of ReadyNation and executive vice president of America’s Promise Alliance. 

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