Private sector vital to quality, economic power of early learning

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James L. Leonhart
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute confirms the critical role of early learning in economic development. But the study also concluded that economic and other benefits accrue only when children receive quality care. YoungStar, the state’s five-star child care quality and improvement system, was implemented last year to ensure that quality.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of Wisconsin children whose parents receive child care subsidies, or more than 20,000 kids, are in two-star providers. Our challenge is to move as many of them as possible to higher-ranked centers. With so much riding on how we answer that challenge, we are working as a partner in YoungStar and with others to deliver results for our children and the state’s economy.

The study recommends increasing the involvement of Wisconsin’s business community in our early care and education system. This echoes guidance from the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council in its last report. Increasing private-sector engagement also is a longstanding priority of the Celebrate Children Foundation.

There’s a need for additional resources that can’t be met by the public sector alone. What’s more, there are great examples from other states of how early learning systems and educational outcomes have flourished through private-sector leadership.

In the early 1990s, leaders in North Carolina knew they had a problem. Children were coming to school unprepared. These leaders concluded that the same “innovative spirit” that drove private-sector success was needed to tackle problems in the state’s child care centers.

Smart Start, a public-private partnership, was formed in 1993. Today, there are private organizations in all 100 North Carolina counties and other local partners working under the North Carolina Partnership for Children, the umbrella for Smart Start.

They work to improve the quality of care and to provide parents with tools to help them raise their kids. And they do it with the support of the state’s private sector. Since 1994, $382 million of private funding has complemented public expenditures.

Smart Start’s success is remarkable. A study conducted in 2010 at Duke University examined the affect of early-childhood programs in North Carolina on educational outcomes. It showed higher overall scores for third-graders on standardized math and reading tests, and a 10 percent reduction in special-education placements by grade 3.

It is no surprise that the percentage of North Carolina children who attend high-quality child care (four or five stars) nearly doubled from 2001 to 2009, while the percentage of low-income children who attend high-quality care grew from 30 percent to 74 percent.

The benefits of high-quality early care and education are clear. A path to higher quality care that doesn’t overburden the state by engaging the private sector is well charted in other states. We will continue to seek state business participation in a system that desperately needs its help and will benefit from its improvement.

James L. Leonhart is executive vice president of the Celebrate Children Foundation, based in Madison. Contact him at james.leonhart@celebrate-children.org or (608) 266-6953.

Last updated: 8:05 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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