Education: Virginia should be thinking decades ahead
As a Virginia public university president, I was proud when Amazon made clear Virginia’s colleges and universities played a huge role in its decision to locate its HQ2 in the commonwealth.
But I’m not writing to brag about Virginia higher ed. I’m writing about the farther future, the other end of the talent pipeline. We know that quality early childhood education could be the best investment we can make in our children and, yes, even our high-tech economy of the future. Amazon understands this, and there is a real opportunity to seize this moment together and make Virginia a national leader.
Ask economists, educators, and elected officials across the political spectrum if there’s a “special sauce” for long-term economic development, as well as thriving civic life, and you may be surprised how many point to quality early childhood education — the work of ensuring all children have access not only to child care but to quality preschool programs that get them ready to learn.
The evidence is overwhelming that investments in quality programs, support for families who need help, and workforce development — preparing the teachers who teach our youngest children — pay for themselves many times over in the form of better long-term education, health, and social outcomes, as well as reduced criminal justice costs. A Federal Reserve paper concluded early childhood programs “should be at the top of the list” for any state or local economic development strategy.
Amazon’s leadership gets this. Last September, founder Jeff Bezos announced a $2 billion gift to launch the “Bezos One Day Fund,” which will work to address family homelessness and early childhood education. At Longwood during a recent statewide meeting of Virginia community and fouryear colleges working to develop the early childhood workforce, first lady of Virginia Pamela Northam — who has made early childhood education a signature issue — noted that during the HQ2 selection process, Amazon executives spoke frequently about the full education pipeline, from “cradle to grave.”
That’s understandable, and not just because quality early childhood education makes Virginia a better place for employees today. It’s about the future, too. Twenty years ago, Amazon was a website selling books. Today it’s a global enterprise of 600,000 employees working to change the world in almost every realm, from cloud computing to space technology. Twenty years from now, Amazon will almost certainly still need computer programmers, and a strong early childhood system is essential for starting that pipeline. But who knows what else Amazon and other companies will need? Whatever the answer, the workforce — and the commonwealth — will be far better off if today’s young children are “learning-ready” when they get to kindergarten.
There’s a big role for higher education here, in both “upskilling” the current workforce and creating tomorrow’s. The benefits of early childhood education depend on well-prepared educators — teachers who understand that early childhood represents a different stage of brain development than elementary education, requiring its own skills and expertise. We also need to channel more college students who are naturally inclined toward, and skilled at, working with the youngest children into that career path.
This is a bipartisan issue. Members of both parties in the General Assembly recognize the moral as well as the economic cases for building a well-trained early childhood workforce. Some of the most innovative and successful states in early childhood include blue ones like Vermont and New Jersey, purple ones like Minnesota, and red ones like Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Virginia should be a national leader, too, and we should dream big. What are some big ideas that could really make a difference? How about a free statewide “upskilling” program offering anyone working at preschool or daycare a chance to take courses improving their skills — helping them to truly engage children, not just watch them. Or an elite statewide corps of top high school graduates who are nurtured into an early childhood career and get some financial aid for college, so they can enter the field with minimal debt. Or this: early childhood centers at every community college and public university. Such centers, like the one Longwood recently opened, would serve as a resource for research and training, encouraging new early childhood degree programs. They would also expand childcare options for parents still pursuing their own education.
We know there are big challenges. Pay is a substantial obstacle to recruiting the best and brightest into the field, and we can’t squeeze more funding from parents of young children, who are already stretched to the limit. Virginia is among the 28 states where child care costs on average more than tuition at public colleges.
But we also cannot make early childhood education a race to the bottom — simply expanding the number of people working in early childhood without giving them the tools to succeed. Improving both quality and affordability will require big ideas. But it’s a cause that should resonate across Virginia, from booming cities and suburbs to parts of the commonwealth that are struggling. Attracting new businesses and young families is the fuel of civic and economic renewal everywhere, and quality early childhood options are an essential ingredient.
Virginians have a range of views about the value of the Amazon deal. I happen to believe it’s an enormously good one. But the value of the partnership not just to Northern Virginia but for all of us will be undeniable if decades from now its legacy includes a bold commitment to early childhood education across government, higher education, philanthropy, and business. Let’s seize this moment and make Virginia the very best state in the nation for giving children a strong start.