THE MARYLAND STATE Board of Education recently announced that it will seek to institute all-day kindergarten statewide. Though this worthwhile initiative will provide an important boost for many children and families, we should, at the same time, seize an even greater opportunity to help children succeed in school.
Because of the recent convergence of two fields of research, we now know that one of the greatest influences on educational achievement is the quality of a child's experiences from birth to age 5, before he or she enters school.
Contrary to the long-held belief that children are born with a fixed intellectual capacity, neurological studies indicate that brain development is much more vulnerable to environmental influences, especially up to age 5. At the same time, recently released studies have also shown that high-quality, early childhood education, in combination with other support services, has long-term positive effects from childhood through adolescence.
Yet 90 percent of our public expenditures on children does not occur until after children enter school -- after 90 percent of brain development has already occurred. Armed with this knowledge, we must redefine education in Maryland to include preparing all children to enter school ready to learn -- cognitively, emotionally, socially, linguistically and physically.
To do so, we must build an early childhood educational system that works with families, fostering their capacity to provide critical experiences to children. Such a system must be community-based, bridging all of the elements of a community which influence young children and their families.
Maryland started the new millennium with legislation to try to create such a system, the centerpiece of which is the establishment of eight to 10 Judith P. Hoyer care and Education Centers. The Judy Centers will provide children up to age 5 and their families with comprehensive early childhood education services geared to prepare children for kindergarten.
The legislation also created the Early Childhood Accreditation Project, which will provide grants and technical assistance to child-care programs voluntarily seeking early childhood education accreditation.
Finally, the linchpin to Maryland's strategy for improving school readiness is a focus on results. Therefore, all local school systems in Maryland, beginning this school year, will provide baseline information about the cognitive, emotional, social, linguistic and physical readiness of Maryland's children as they enter kindergarten. With these baselines, we will be able to track progress and gauge the effectiveness of our initiatives, including the Judy Centers.
All-day kindergarten will provide much needed help to our 5-year-olds.
We need to create public-private partnerships through which Maryland's business community can provide expertise, leadership and other resources to achieve school readiness in Maryland.
We also must implement a comprehensive vision for the community-based Judy Centers, at least doubling the base funding this year. We must provide incentives and technical assistance to support other community efforts that contribute to the development of family-centered, community-based, early childhood education.
For example, we need to reward providers who achieve early childhood education accreditation through a system of favorable, or "tiered," reimbursements. We must also provide grants to encourage child-care providers to seek early childhood education accreditation, scholarship dollars to child-care staff members who seek professional training and incentive bonuses for those who complete professional training.
Financing is a critical issue. While many providers will want to seek accreditation, a part of the accreditation process includes having the physical facilities that help stimulate growth in our children.
Unfortunately, too many providers lack the financing to address this issue. San Francisco, faced with the same problem, created an Education Facilities Fund.
Maryland should create just such a public-private partnership -- the Maryland Early Childhood Education Facilities Fund to provide grants and low-cost financing to improve early childhood education facilities. The fund could also provide technical assistance in finance and facilities renovation and expansion.
The leadership of the private sector is critically important to these efforts and, from a business perspective, this is a sound investment in educational achievement and work-force development. Public funding of these efforts is also a sound investment because significant public savings are associated with early childhood education.
For example, one study estimated that every dollar invested in high-quality preschool programs returned $7 that otherwise would have gone for welfare, unemployment costs or other compensatory services.
Maryland is blessed with a strong economy and, as a result, a budget surplus. By investing the surplus in early childhood education, we can create the savings that will more than pay for early childhood education when there is no surplus -- and, at the same time, prepare all of our children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
Mark Berey is chief financial officer of Discovery.com, Susan C. Keating is president and CEO of Allfirst Financial Inc. and David W. Rutstein is senior vice president and general counsel of Giant Food.