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Education That Pays

CBIA Leader Sees Public Preschool Programs As Step Toward Smarter Workforce

March 16, 2007

John Rathgeber, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, was appointed in 2006 as co-chairman of the governor's Early Childhood Research and Policy Council. Rathgeber, 57, of the Kensington section of Berlin, discussed his thoughts about the intersection of business and early childhood education.

Q. The governor has proposed tax increases that will pump nearly $3.4 billion into school funding over five years. You're a strong advocate for preschool funding. Why?

A. With the council, we tried to focus on how quickly we could bring online the human infrastructure and the physical space that would make for a quality early childhood experience. We have about 14,000 children in Connecticut who are not currently served by the state in this area.

We realize in Connecticut that our single greatest asset is the quality of our workforce. Understanding that, and understanding the term "aging state" - that is, a lot of skilled individuals are getting closer to retirement age - and knowing that we've had a migration of young people from the state, we know we can't continue like this.

Q. Not everyone agrees with you. Some conservative bloggers have suggested that public preschool would be little more than subsidized day care, producing bloated school budgets. How do you respond to that?

A. Early childhood education is not a silver bullet, but it is part of what we need to do.

If you don't come to school ready to learn and haven't made progress by grade three, studies indicate that you will have a difficult time in school and be more likely to end up on some type of welfare or even in the criminal justice system, [as opposed to] a successful and productive citizen and taxpayer.

Some criticize the return-on-investment model by saying that not every child who has gone to preschool has done well, but right now there is an array of early childhood experiences. We don't want to shove young children into poorly constructed, poorly supervised environments.

We are trying to build a quality system where we can measure the outcomes as we go throughout, starting with a kindergarten assessment process.

The best use of state resources is to focus on those who can't afford to do something that we know is good for them. It doesn't necessarily mean in the public schools; it could be in nonprofit centers that meet certain certification requirements.

Q. Governor Rell, in a recent Courant op-ed piece discussing the future of Connecticut's economy, wrote that, "Two decades from now, we can expect it to be dominated by stem cell research, nanotechnology, medical research and new directions we can only imagine today." Aren't these emerging industries fueled by small businesses, businesses that would really feel the pinch of the proposed increases in taxes and education spending?

A. If we're going to have stem cell companies and other innovative high-tech companies, we are going to have to have the right workforce. The days of graduating people from high school and having them ready to do remedial work are not going to sustain an economy that is going to maintain our quality of life.

There is more in the governor's proposal than just early childhood education. She's talking about raising academic standards across the school systems, having an exit exam, supporting choices in terms of charter schools and magnet schools. There are a number of things that go into what is, in essence, a $500 million recommendation phased in over five years.

With a $16 billion state budget, before we jump to raising taxes, we need to look and see if there are things that we can be doing better and more efficiently that would put money into these priorities. The early childhood education example, just on the quality initiatives and additional slots, was in the area of $50 million over a two-year period of time, so it's a relatively modest investment when you look at the outcome of what can take place there.

Q. The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council ranked Connecticut 32 out of 50 last year in terms of favorable states in which to own and operate a business. You're a primary advocate for businesses, yet at the same time you are a leading proponent of public investment in preschool programs. Do these two roles conflict?

A. On the key recommendation to expand quality early childhood education - no. Some issues covered by the council are priorities for CBIA. I think that [my work] in early education is a part of my primary mission. It has to be. We can't afford to have only 30 percent of the children who enter ninth grade in Hartford graduate four years later. We can't keep doing that.

One area that impacts the economic competitiveness of Connecticut is cost. This is a high-cost state - high taxes, high energy costs, high health-care costs. This makes it difficult for a lot of companies who do not have pricing power to do business here. But what has allowed us to do that has been the quality of the workforce, which is what we've been talking about. We need to stay on top of the quality of our future workforce.

Jennifer Warner Cooper is a free-lance writer in Glastonbury.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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