SALT LAKE CITY — The nation must invest in early learning to improve education and other social outcomes and to better support the U.S. economy, experts told state executives on the final day of the National Governors Association summer meeting Friday.
"We have to get this this right. The clock is always ticking. It's incumbent on us to act and act now," said Geoffrey Nagle, president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, which focuses exclusively on child care, early education and supporting families.
While the benefits of early childhood education are well-documented, policy debates rage over the best research-backed approaches and how to pay for it.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, chairwoman of the National Governors Association's health and human services committee, said there are examples in the nation's history when high-quality child care was a priority.
"When this country knew that we needed 24-hour day care, we provided it and that was during World War II," Brown said. As servicemen fought overseas, women built ships in the Portland area and elsewhere in the country, she said.
"Eleanor Roosevelt knew that we needed 24-hour day care in order to have the workers we needed to produce the equipment we needed to win that war," Brown said. "This country can do this."
Brown said it's a matter of priorities, and given the nation's current workforce needs, it's time to "come together and figure out how to make this happen for our communities, our families and frankly, our economies."
Cheryl Oldham, senior vice president of education and workforce for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said the world's largest business organization has long championed high-quality child care and early learning and partners with state and local chambers that support child care and early learning.
The chamber takes a two-generation approach to the issue, the workforce of today and workforce of tomorrow, she said.
"We know learning begins the moment a child is born," Oldham said, explaining that the early learning establishes the foundation for later learning and skill building.
Access to child care also impacts parents' ability to participate in the workforce and to complete higher education, which benefits their families and boosts the economy because there are more highly educated adults in the labor pool.
Among those who don't complete their degrees, "many of them point to those family issues as the reason they're unable to complete," she said.
Nagle told the governors that the fundamental structure of America's public education system is largely unchanged from that of education reformer Horace Mann in the 1850s.
Mann traveled to Prussia, which at the time was considered the best education system in the world. It was a universal system for boys and girls starting at age 5 that was compulsory, taxpayer funded and led by trained teachers.
"What did I just describe to you? Our modern education system," Nagle said.
Over the years, important programs and innovations have been added such as school nutrition programs and special education.
But the framework is largely intact, and from that platform educators are being asked to close the achievement gap, graduate high percentages of students who are career ready and accelerate learning for struggling students.
Given what is now known about the benefits of high quality child care and early childhood education, Nagle posed this question of the nation's governors:
"If you were designing the system today, would you design the system that was designed in 1850?"