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Monday, September 23, 2013 - 3:11pm

Education Secretary Asks Executives To Lobby Congress

The Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) hosted a summit of more than 200 business leaders and policy makers. They came to Atlanta to discuss how early childhood education impacts workforce development. GEEARS wants to ensure that all Georgia students by 2020 will enter kindergarten prepared to succeed and on a path to read to learn by third grade.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says less than 30 percent of 4 year olds in this country have access to high quality pre-kindergarten education. He stresses that hurts their chances to get a good education and a good job. “The average child coming from a disadvantaged community starts kindergarten a year to 14 months behind. And then we wonder why we have achievement gaps. We wonder why we have dropout rates. We have to get out of the catch-up business.” he says.

Pete Selleck is Chairman and President of the tire company Michelin North America, which has 13 plants in the U.S. He says 30 years ago many on the company’s production lines were illiterate. To operate their equipment now every worker has to know how to read. Many manufacturing workers came from low-income families and Selleck believes there’s still a divide separating those families from those who can afford to get their children ready for school. “We have a great education system. The problem is to try to get everyone into it. And right now this divide is real. It’s certainly based on the change in the family structure that’s taken place in our country unfortunately." He says" it can be overcome. And I think the efforts that many people here are making, that our companies are making, is starting to make a difference. And we’ve got to accelerate it.” Selleck says there is now a recognition in this country that education is crucial to workforce development, and it has to start early.

Paul Amos II is president of the insurance company Aflac, which is based in Columbus, Georgia. Aflac operates two high quality day care centers that serve more than 540 children. The program isn't just a babysitting service. Amos boasts it teaches academic and social skills to help children prepare for school. He believes it’s important for their future workforce as well as to retain quality employees. “We know by age five, so much of the formation of how their going to learn and what they’re going to do is already established. And that’s before they’re pushed into the public school system. And so the reality is that if we’re not helping them invest, if we’re not helping our employees, then they’re not going to find themselves satisfied at work.” Amos says if parents can’t get good quality child care they may start looking for a new employer.

Education Secretary Duncan emphasizes that it’s also about keeping up in the global marketplace. He says China is talking about instituting three years of early childhood education for every kid in China by the year 2020. “They’re going to out-educate us, out-innovate us. And like you, I desperately want to keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in this country. The only way we do that I think is we have the best educated workforce in the world. And to do that, we have to get our babies off to a good start.” Duncan says we are nowhere near meeting the need for high quality pre K programs in America.

He praises Georgia for its early childhood programs, but says the state needs to do more. “For all the progress, there’s still a waiting list of you know, 8,000-10,000 children, whatever the exact number is, far too many. Georgia, I think like states across the country, need a good partner in the federal government to get children off that waiting list. And make sure they’re entering kindergarten with the academic and the social skills they need to be wildly successful.”

The President wants to double the number of children in high quality pre K programs, but Duncan warns that will take more than shifting funds. And he told executives that given the gridlock in Washington, pressure is going to have to come from the business community. “ At the end of the day to go from a million children to two million is not going to be about reallocation around the margins, it’s going to be about new money. So I’d very specifically ask folks to do is to think about the moderate republicans, who in their heart know this is the right thing. And who are being pulled to the far right to say can they come together and provide leadership?” Duncan believes that despite the gridlock there is a chance to get more funding for early childhood education. But he cautions that will only happen if businesses lean hard on their congressmen and senators. He stresses that the need goes beyond small pilot programs. Duncan says a major investment in early childhood education now would be the biggest gift businesses and government could give the country.