Business leaders are investing in education in Baltimore, and not just out of charity or to "give back." While both are worthy purposes, our business leaders recognize the bottom line value in a growing and diverse Baltimore economy. Investment in education will make that a reality. Various levels of government are reciprocating, and the legislative session and upcoming gubernatorial race offer a perfect time to take that work to the next level.
These leaders are investing in public education because they need an educated workforce, because they want good schools that will help the city retain the many young adults who want to continue their urban lifestyle here when they start families, and because education is the best route out of poverty for our underserved youth. Our leaders are supporting efforts that ensure that kids are ready for school, that support principals and give them the autonomy to excel, and that measure and enhance school effectiveness.
Business interest in school readiness reflects a growing national recognition that early childhood education is fundamental to America's ability to compete in a global economy. More than 300 top business leaders from diverse companies including Toyota, Macy's, Continental Airlines, Yahoo and Procter and Gamble last year wrote in an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress, "We rarely have the luxury of making business investment decisions with as much evidence as we have to support the economic value of investing in early care and education. ... Early care and education is not a partisan issue. It is an American competitiveness issue."
Businesses are voting with their pocketbooks. PNC is investing more than $350 million nationally on school readiness through its signature effort "Grow Up Great," which is working locally with partners such as Maryland's "Ready at Five," a program that focuses on preparing children for school by age 5.
The return on investment is already being seen in Baltimore, where kindergarten readiness, as determined by the Maryland Model for School Readiness, has increased drastically in Baltimore City, from 28 percent in the 2001-2002 school year to 78 percent overall by the 2012-2013 school year. Here, private sector investment is being matched by the city and state in the development of early childhood resource centers, known across Maryland as Judy Centers in honor of Representative Steny Hoyer's late wife, Judith P. Hoyer. The state is matching private sector investments by providing 50 percent of the operating cost in the first three years for new Judy Centers in the city, while the city and the state will provide the funding for operations in future years.
These school-based centers complement Head Start, Early Head Start and pre-K programs by partnering with community-based agencies, non-profit organizations and businesses to connect families with a wide range of services including health screenings, adult education, special needs identification and early intervention, parenting classes and family literacy. They also reach out to informal child care providers in the communities they serve to provide technical assistance and encourage certification, thus improving the early childhood experience of even more children. School readiness for children who received a prior year of Judy Center experience in Baltimore City is an impressive 94 percent.
We believe that the General Assembly and gubernatorial candidates should be inspired by this private-public cooperation and take deliberate steps to move Maryland and Baltimore forward. With the Maryland Family Network, we endorse a plan for expanding preschool opportunities in our state that calls for a phased-in approach to increase the current income eligibility for families from 185 percent of the poverty level to 300 percent, then offer public pre-K to those families at the state's median income and finally to provide full access to all families. We want to emphasize the importance of prioritizing children of families with the greatest need and ensuring that they ultimately be offered full-day services, as these parents are often working more than one full-time job and can't take advantage of half-day programs. We also endorse the expansion of Judy Centers to ensure that families have access to all the resources available to help them thrive.
Business leaders, philanthropists and government investing in education collectively will strengthen families, provide economic opportunity for the next generation and grow the economy in Baltimore and throughout the state of Maryland.
Laura Gamble is regional president of PNC in Greater Maryland, Josh Fidler is co-chairman of Chesapeake Realty Partners and Tom Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation (his email is Twilcox@bcf.org). All are trustees of the Baltimore Community Foundation.
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