Thursday, April 1, 2010

Solano County officials told: Preschool education extremely important

By Richard Bammer/

Posted: 04/01/2010 01:01:45 AM PDT

Matt Regan worries about two things: high school dropout rates of 25 percent in California and the need to make preschool education a priority. He sees them as inextricably linked, asserting, as many educators do, that a child's enrollment in early education programs significantly increases the likelihood of graduation from high school, success in college and, ultimately, a better life. He believes the U.S. business community is better served with an educated workforce that will make it a competitive global player in the coming decades.

"There are countries that are cleaning our clocks when it comes to early education," said Regan, vice president of governmental relations for the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored, public-policy advocacy group in San Francisco. He cited Europe and Japan as leaders in early childhood education.

Speaking to some 150 Solano business leaders, educators and elected county and city officials on Wednesday, he said the issue of increasing opportunities for preschool education "is a business imperative."

"We forget about human capital investment," he said during the Solano Economic Development Corporation's Fairfield breakfast meeting, themed "Business & Children -- They Are More Connected Than You Think!"

As one of several speakers, Regan cited a lengthy Chicago study that tracked a sample population to age 40, some of which enrolled in preschool classes and others that did not. Those that passed through preschool programs tended to be better educated, well-adjusted and successful. Additionally, he said the California dropout rate "is climbing."

"How do we fix these problems with limited funds?" Regan asked rhetorically.

Through public-private partnerships, community support and "advocacy efforts" targeted at county, state and federal leaders, he said.

Having a more educated workforce is essential in a knowledge-based economy, such as the Bay Area's, he said.

"We are not a Rust Belt economy," said Regan, noting that the NUMMI automotive plant in Fremont closed Tuesday. "Those kinds of jobs are no longer here."

Keynote speaker Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California, said creating a workforce of the future is necessary "to compete in the global economy," and specifically called for the creation of "a cadre" of mathematicians and scientists to fill private-sector ranks.

Encouraging middle school and high schools students to enter scientific fields is helpful but, in the long run, he added, such efforts prove to have less effect than those "encouraging and supporting kids who are starting in elementary school."

Coupling public-private partnerships with philosophical agreement among policymakers is necessary for the success of the U.S. economy and its future, said McNeely, the father of two young children.

"It impacts our ability to compete as a state and a nation," he added.

Dee Alarcon, superintendent of the Solano County Office of Education, noted the county's graduation rate (75 percent) lagged behind the state average (80 percent) in 2007-08.

"Today decides tomorrow," she said, alluding to several vertical banners posted near the speaker's lectern, one noting that 90 percent of a child's development occurs before age 5.

District 2 Supervisor Linda Seifert noted that some 49,000 children are eligible for child care in Solano County but there are only 12,800 spaces available.

Early childhood education has "direct benefits to taxpayers," she said, adding that those children who complete such programs tend to stay out of the criminal justice system.

"What can we do right now?" Seifert asked. "Tell political leaders that early childhood education pays off."