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Leonhart: Early childhood education important to economic growth

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Multi-billion-dollar state budget deficits notwithstanding, Jim Leonhart believes there’s no time like the present to boost investment in early childhood education.

“The bottom line is essentially, ‘when do you want to pay?” argued Leonhart, executive vice president of the Celebrate Children Foundation, a decade-old organization that focuses on birth-to-five programs.

“You can invest early, build young people and help insure their success or you can build more prisons. I’m suggesting we pay on the front end and bank on having young people having greater success.”

The foundation is funded in part by the sale of colorful “Celebrate Children” license plates, state aid and other initiatives.

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Leonhart, who previously ran the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, (now called BioForward), said early childhood education is important because ongoing research shows human brains are wired by the age of 5 and because in Wisconsin, 72 percent of the children under age 6 have all available parents in the workforce.

Leonhart said he is certain working parents want their kids to be in quality programs that will maximize their potential “because it’s that period from birth to 5 when our brains are developing faster than at any other time in our lives.

“And that is why we are here and why looking to get resources invested in early childhood education.”

Leonhart, who spent nearly two decades as a teacher, coach and principal in three Wisconsin school districts, said he is pleased to be working for kids again.

“I reflected on my former career life for a long time,” he said. “I decided I wanted to be back here, so this is a good landing pad. I believe this piece of education is critical for economic development reasons and even national security reasons. I hope I can bring some focus to this piece of education reform.”

Leonhart said he is dismayed that Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, wants to cut funding for four-year-old kindergarten programs.

“I know there is a big hole in the budget, but that is absolutely the wrong direction to be moving,” he said. “There is a good reason why 90 percent of the school districts in the state have some affiliation with a four-year-old kindergarten program.

“The great economic powers in the world have this, including China. All the countries in Europe have it, too. Even Mexico has universal 4K programs. Is there something they know that they know that we don’t?

“What they do know is that they wish to build economic power and they see this early education piece as absolutely critical to having that happen long term.”

Leonhart said longitudinal studies that follow young people from birth to age 21 and even 30 show that quality early learning produces savings in education, special education and juvenile delinquency costs.

Leonhart said states with ongoing early childhood education systems from ages birth-to-five include North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, Missouri and Nebraska. He said they all have private as well as public funding.

“Nebraska built a $60 million endowment for early childhood education with $20 million that the state put in and then private funding, which brought in another $40 million,” he said.

Leonhart said the Celebrate Children Foundation is part of the implementation team for Youngstar, the Wisconsin Department of Family Services agency’s rating and improvement system for birth-to-five programs.

“We want to help increase private interest and private investment in early childhood education in this state and get kids more ready for school, be more successful in school and eventually better employees.”

Leonhart lauded Gov. Scott Walker’s mission to add 250,000 jobs in the state over the next few years.

“But I would say to Scott, a former student of mine when I was principal at Delavan-Darien High School, where are the children of those employees going to be?

“One, they should be in a quality learning environment and two, we should be helping them become better future employees.”

Because well-to-do parents can afford quality pre-school programs, Leonhart said he wants to make sure low-income children have equal opportunities.

“The whole thrust of this program is that a young person from Milwaukee would have the same opportunity as someone in Eau Claire to have a good start in life.”

Leonhart said he has visited quality Milwaukee programs where children have made substantial educational gains.

“In fact, a survey from just a couple of years ago of kindergarten teachers in the Milwaukee public school system clearly showed that children coming out of a quality preschool environment had a head start in their K-12 education life,” he said.

Leonhart also said early childhood programs can mitigate behavior problems.

“Three national longitudinal studies showed school districts would save substantial money (through) having young people involved quality programs that ultimately reduced special education, welfare and juvenile delinquency costs.

“All of these things of course come back to jobs issue and jobs preparation. We need to convince citizens of our state and business leaders that this is an investment worth making and we should encourage more people to participate in it.”

Leonhart said Celebrate Children has had discussions with business groups that have been generally receptive. He said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, has spoken publicly several times on why he thinks early childhood education is an important part of the state’s economic development strategy.

“I think the Republican leadership in this state realizes if we are going to grow a strong economic system and grow jobs in Wisconsin, you can’t saw off the front end of that process," Leonhart said. “If we do, we will exacerbate the long-term issues about the growth of the economy. If we want to invite companies to Wisconsin, one of the messages should be that we have places for their employees’ children where quality learning takes place.”


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