MOUNTAIN VILLAGE – “When you look at a house you may not see its foundation. But that’s what holds it up. And if the foundation of a house is cracked, you have to fix it – even if it means skimping on other things,” BusinessWeek Chief Economist Michael Mandel told the group of businesspeople, political leaders and authorities on finance and education gathered for this week’s Third Annual Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment, co-sponsored by the Telluride Foundation and the Partnership for America’s Economic Success.
Mandel, a Harvard PhD responsible for formulating BusinessWeek's coverage of economic policy, was in Telluride to connect the dots between economics and early childhood education. His Tuesday evening keynote address, “Early Childhood Investment in the Aftermath of the Economic Crisis,” painted a bleak picture for America’s financial landscape – if government policy on early childhood education isn’t transformed soon.
“If we don’t do this – if we don’t fix early childhood education – we will end up with a failed economic system,” he warned, as vulnerable as a house with a dangerously cracked foundation.
“Our ability to have a functioning economy depends on us having a more functional workforce.”
Mandel’s Tuesday night address drove home the sense of urgency voiced by keynote speakers Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Second District Congressman Jared Polis at the invitation-only Summit’s Sunday-night start, neatly underscoring three-day forum’s stark message that swift and decisive reform of the programs and policies shaping America’s early childhood education systems must take place now.
Research shows that effective early childhood education – i.e., the schooling of children prior to age six – significantly affects the children’s intelligence as they grow and develop into functioning adults.
Effective early childhood education boasts a tremendous return on investment, observed Summit organizer Paul Major, president and CEO of the Telluride Foundation, with a return of up to $16 for every $1 invested, thanks to reduced costs (children with solid early education foundations require less social services, especially in the realm of special education and crime) and in performance (kids with strong early educations grow into better-performing, higher-paid members of the workforce.)
And so exploring the economic value of early childhood investment is a significant means to an end, Major said. “The economic discussion is critical to get business engaged,” he said, and firm business support “is critical for state and federal changes, due to [business representatives’] power to pursue legislation and elected officials.”
On the surface, the lines that link the dots between the creation of strong educational systems for America’s youngest and the country’s subsequent economic success seem obscure, but Mandel, named Economic Journalist of the Year by the World Leadership Forum in 2006 and the author of several books (as well as of the popular blog Economics Unbound), eloquently illuminated their connective power in his Tuesday-night speech.
“There’s been a lot of ink spilled about how this crisis was due to the evil rapaciousness of Wall Street financiers,” he said, referring to the origins of the economic meltdown we face today.
“But the truth is, I view this crisis as a symptom, rather than a cause.” The decade leading up to the meltdown, which finally erupted last fall, saw virtually no growth in private-sector jobs, no real wage gains for college graduates and, effectively, no gains in the stock-market, when adjusted for inflation.
Instead, what we saw in those ten years leading up to the crisis was, Mandel said, “present-focused, rather than future-focused” spending, on things like houses, cars, clothing and electronics, creating “enormous economic vulnerability” that led, in turn, to soaring debt.
Fixing our currently broken economic model is not so simple as repairing a leaky roof, Mandel said. We must mend our economy’s badly broken foundation, which is, he said, at risk of caving in.
“We have to increase our spending on social intangibles, starting with early childhood education,” he said.
“There must be a broader shift in focus, to doing things that are future-oriented rather than present-oriented.”
A shift to future-oriented thinking and spending will, in turn, strengthen our economy and hence our society, by facilitating the construction of a solid foundation from which a solid social and economic future can be built.
The annual Economic Summit is a joint venture between the Partnership for America's Economic Success, a national coalition taking as its goal the mobilization of business leaders to improve tomorrow's economy through smart policy investments in young children today, and the Telluride Foundation, a regional champion of early childhood education. This year’s Summit agenda focused on the need to build an effective national business leaders coalition quickly, and on the importance of investment in early childhood education an integral part of an economic rebound thanks to improved workforce competitiveness and fiscal sustainability. The deliverables generated from this year’s Summit included the “Telluride Principles,” regarding investment in early education, and the “State and Federal Resource Allocation Principles,” outlining how to invest state and federal dollars to maximize broad-based economic development.
For more information on the Summit, the Partnership or the Telluride Foundation, visit these websites: www.telluridefoundation.org, www.PartnershipforSuccess.org.