North Carolina is one of the fastest growing states in the country. And that means a lot more jobs. The problem? We may not have individuals with the skills needed to fill them.
Companies across our state are experiencing a “skills gap” – the inability to fill jobs that require higher and higher levels of education and training. Experts predict that 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina, by 2020, will require education past high school. However, only 42 percent of North Carolinians have that level education.
The solution? Increase third-grade reading proficiency.
Through third grade, children learn to read. After that, they read to learn. Students who read proficiently at the end of third grade are much more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in higher education and training. Reading also develops communication and critical thinking “soft skills” – vital to businesses and too often lacking in younger employees.
Students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out.
In North Carolina, only 38 percent of fourth graders read proficiently. The state’s business community is ready to reverse these trends.
This month, I joined a group of North Carolina CEOs for the national release of a new report from the Business Roundtable (BRT), of which I am a member, called “Why Reading Matters and What to Do about It.” We support the BRT’s six-step state policy agenda to strengthen third-grade literacy.
The BRT’s first recommendation is increasing access to high-quality pre-K. In North Carolina, that means increasing access to our NC Pre-K program, which targets at-risk 4-year-olds.
High-quality pre-K programs are the foundation on which a comprehensive system of literacy development should be built. Without this foundation, too many children will enter elementary school lagging behind in skills that predict later reading proficiency.
Extensive, rigorous research – detailed in the BRT report – demonstrates that high-quality pre-K programs significantly improve student readiness for kindergarten.
A new report from Duke University – based on a 13-year study of one million children – found that children in NC Pre-K have higher math and reading test scores; fewer special education placements; and fewer instances of being held back. The study, which followed children through the 5th grade, further confirms that the positive impacts of NC Pre-K do not “fade out” over time. Rather, they either hold steady or significantly increase.
NC Pre-K produces strong returns on investment – at least $5 for every $1 invested over the long term. In the shorter term, large savings are realized because far fewer students require placement in expensive special education classes.
My company and I strongly support the goal of READ Charlotte to have 80 percent of Mecklenburg third-graders reading proficiently by 2025. Key to that will be increasing access to NC Pre-K.
Unfortunately, a majority of eligible 4-year-olds – more than 36,000 – are not being served by NC Pre-K.
Although the General Assembly has approved funding increases for NC Pre-K, we need to do more. Last year, funding was increased for only an additional 260 students.
We ask the General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper to consider:
▪ Developing a formalized, multi-year plan to give all eligible children access to NC Pre-K; and
▪ Turning this plan into a reality by making a meaningful, recurring investment toward that goal – starting with this year’s budget.
I recognize that increasing access to high-quality pre-K has a significant cost. But when such extensive research shows these programs get children on the path to reading proficiency and success in school and life, it is a wise investment.
Nelson is Chairman, President and CEO of National Gypsum Company in Charlotte. Email: TomNelson@nationalgypsum.com