Ed­u­ca­tion: Vir­ginia should be think­ing decades ahead

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - OP-ED - W. Tay­lor Reve­ley IV is pres­i­dent of Long­wood Univer­sity, and may be con­tacted at rev­e­[email protected]­wood.edu.

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.


Reve­ley IV

W. Tay­lor

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