The economic well-being of Louisiana and the nation is dependent on improved educational attainment and performance at all levels, especially on how well we do in preparing our youngest children for school and life.

This week there was an education summit, of sorts in New Orleans. But while the focus was on aspects of education, as you would expect, there was also an emphasis on the economy. Where do those two areas intersect? In the notion that the economic well being of Louisiana and the nation is dependent on improved educational attainment and performance at all levels but especially on how well we do in preparing our youngest children for school and life.

“Early childhood education is economic development and it’s a very good economic investment.” Those are the words of Dr. Arthur Rolnick, a retired senior vice president with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and economist with the Federal Open Market Committee, the monetary policymaking body for the Federal Reserve System. And while remarks like that aren’t what you usually expect from a researcher with a background in banking, monetary history and the economics of federalism, they speak clearly to the need for policy makers to focus on the economics of increased educational attainment.

Dr. Rolnick’s message is actually pretty simple. Increased investment in the welfare and education of young children makes sound economic sense and provides a return on investment that would make any investor in the stock market or a business ecstatic. The evidence is growing clearer by the day that the early development of young children has a profound effect on their future education outcomes and their success in life.

When poverty and other family issues cause stress on children in the earliest stages of their lives, it negatively impacts brain development which too often leads to problems that begin to show up early and can linger throughout life. But when those stresses are absent or relieved, the outcomes are much improved. His research shows that investment in early childhood education for young children yields huge returns or “profits” to society and the individual. At-risk kids who receive it are less likely to fail a grade, need special education, drop out of school, or become involved in crime.

And while there is a strong moral argument that could be made for helping these children, there’s also a clear economic argument. We spend more money dealing with the issues caused by a lack of early childhood education, than we do in providing it.

Retired Air Force Lt. General Norman Seip took that point even further. “In 20 years the national security of our nation will depend on what’s going on in early childhood settings today.” How do those points connect? Again, it’s fairly simple. Gen. Seip says the most important weapon in the military’s arsenal is its people.

But even today there is an alarming percentage of the population that doesn’t qualify for military service because they lack a high school degree, are obese, or have been involved in crime. As skill and educational needs for the military increase the pool of qualified recruits is shrinking and he argues that fact alone puts the security of our country at risk. “If an external enemy had done this to us, we would have declared war.”

J.B. Pritzker is a venture capitalist from Chicago who is a principal owner of Hyatt Hotels Corp. and TransUnion Corp. He believes the economic future of our country depends on providing high quality early childhood education to at-risk children and mentoring support for their parents. “It’s not a social gesture or moral good,” he says. “It’s an economic requirement.”

Again, he points to the sheer dollars and cents. For example, special education for students in school can cost upwards of $100,000 per child. Early childhood education reduces special education needs by half. Simply do the math. As an investor in businesses he says companies locate where the infrastructure is strongest and that includes education and ingenuity.

“If we’re serious about our economic future, it’s time to ask are we building a workforce that will help us compete today and dominate tomorrow? The answer, of course, is no.”

An economist, an Air Force general and a business man. Three different people with diverse backgrounds. But they all agree on several things:

  • The future strength of our country is threatened by a lack of educational attainment.
  • The capabilities of our workforce aren’t keeping up with the needs of our employers.
  • Investment in early childhood education and development is a cost effective solution and it works.
  • It’s not a moral argument, conservative argument or liberal argument. It’s a common sense economic argument.

When most of us graduate from college, get our first jobs and start families it’s difficult to think decades ahead and begin saving for retirement. But we do it because we want to create a secure future for ourselves even while we are focused on the issues and needs of the present.

We as a state must do the same thing. With a high poverty rate, low educational attainment, too much crime, an inadequate workforce and a high percentage of at-risk children, Louisiana is by any measure a most vulnerable state. These three men have examined the data, done the analysis and concluded that our nation’s future is threatened without an intervention and investment in the human capital that can turn that situation around.

If our country is indeed at such risk, we must ask ourselves where does that put Louisiana and are we doing enough to address it?

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