Businesses back pre-kindergarten expansion

April 5th, 2017

By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Indiana business leaders are rallying behind a bill that would expand pre-kindergarten to all 92 counties, calling the program a powerful tool to develop the future workforce and attract talent to the state.

State lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 276, which would expand pre-K beyond the current five-state pilot program. The expansion would require a total $16 million from the budget. Additionally, the bill would allocate $1 million from the budget for in-home, technology-based pre-K education.

All IN 4 Pre-K, a campaign of Hoosier families, community advocates and business leaders, believe spending on pre-K expansion to be a worthy investment.

Building blocks

When it comes to early childhood education, the return on investment is not as long-term as one might think, said Dena Jacquay, chief human resources officer for Parkview Health, which is among the coalition of businesses backing the bill.

“At Parkview, we see the clear economic line from early childhood education to what will someday be the individuals who will work for Parkview or who will work for other employers in our area,” she said.

Jacquay, who also serves as the board chair for Early Childhood Alliance, said that high quality pre-K is much more than day care.

“This is not about child care in the sense that someone is watching your child,” she said. “It’s about preparing everyone from birth to five years old so that they’re ready for kindergarten and can be thriving members of the community.”

Whether it’s reading, learning words, learning colors or playing, Jacquay said pre-K helps build a foundation of skills that can help children hit the ground running when they get to kindergarten.

“The kindergarten curriculum is different than it was 12 years ago, nine years ago, six years ago,” she said. “It has changed so much. It has gotten much more aggressive and that shows more and more how early childhood education is needed.”

Pre-K advocate Domini Martin-Urban, associate director of regional initiatives for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, works on workforce development and talent development and how they relate to education. Pre-K can be a crucial time in a child’s education when it comes to developing skills that will help them later on in life, she said.

“We hear employers discussing soft skills quite frequently,” she said.

One’s development of soft skills, the personal attributes that enable someone to work well with others, peaks between the ages of four and five – pre-K age – Martin-Urban said.

However, the development of the future workforce isn’t the only stake local businesses see in pre-K.

Attracting talent

Education plays an important role in quality of place – both in the opportunities that pre-K allots children and in the cost of child care, which averages somewhere between $7,500 and $8,500 a year. It can be a significant burden on young families, Martin-Urban said.

“People have a choice in where they’d like to live and work and play, and a lot of people who have families will choose to live and work and play in places that prioritize their families and one aspect of that is insuring they have the best possible start to their education that they possibly can,” she said.

Jim Marcuccilli, CEO of Star Financial Bank, is also a member of the coalition of business leaders advocating for the expansion of pre-K. So far, the issue hasn’t necessarily been a driver for businesses, he said. But moving forward, he suspects that more people will make the connection and realize that it’s going to be hard to attract young professionals, young couples and young families to a community that doesn’t offer pre-K.

“Young adults today value where they’re going to live, what they’re going to do professionally, where they’re going to raise a family,” he said. “A lot has to do with what families think of the educational systems that they can have their children in.”

In Steuben County, improving access to high quality pre-K programs has become a community priority, said Jennifer Danic, president and CEO of the Steuben County Community Foundation.

“There are not enough spots available for our current population and that doesn’t take into account recruitment efforts by employers,” she said. “In the past year, I’ve been made aware of recruitment efforts stalling and failing because the potential employees were unable to secure high-quality pre-K for their children in our community.”

Danic was surprised after coming across some statistics for Steuben County on the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee website.

According to the figures, about 25 percent of children under the age of five were enrolled in educational programs and even less were enrolled in high-quality programs.

“We were just floored by the fact that this report showed that only 8 percent of our young people under the age of five were enrolled in what the state would consider a high-quality program,” she said.

Since then, the county has allocated money to help get existing providers on the state rating system and on the path to being considered high-quality programs.

Meanwhile, there are not enough pre-K spots to go around. Danic said she knew of a pre-K provider who had received a call from a large employer asking if she could give a tour of the facility to a potential employee.

“She said, ‘I had to say yes, but I also had to say that there were no openings,’” she said.