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Why pre-K in N.C. should be expanded

By Weston M. Andress
Special to the Observer

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. Pat McCrory proposed funding for 5,000 more at-risk children, and President Obama has called for universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds from disadvantaged families. Both leaders recognize research that supports the importance of early childhood education to help 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 quality early education 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 at-risk children are prepared for school. Research shows they are more likely to graduate, obtain meaningful jobs and do well over time. In these many ways, they have an opportunity to experience social and economic mobility that may not otherwise be theirs.

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, states 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. Research shows that for every dollar spent on a quality pre-k education, there is as much as a $16 return to society.

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.

Though the need for financial assistance is great, the trend in funding pre-K programs is down. Total state support for pre-K in the 2010-2011 school year decreased by nearly $60 million and would have fallen by an additional $127 million or more if not for additional federal grants [source: NIEER]. This is the second consecutive year that total state spending on pre-K has declined. In North Carolina, as the Observer’s Monday editorial points out, N.C. legislators introduced a bill last week to reduce eligibility for the state’s pre-K program.

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. We have committed $530,000 to this cause and are working with our partners, The Bethlehem Center, Discovery Place, and Community School of the Arts, to boost exposure to science and art for underserved preschool children in Charlotte.

I look forward to working alongside public officials, business leaders and our partners to increase the focus on preparing more children for the educational and economic challenges ahead. With a targeted investment in early education reaching a greater number of children, we will have a strategy that helps 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 America.

Weston M. Andress is the Regional President of Western Carolina for PNC Bank.
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