How to make the economic case for early childhood programs to the business community and policymakers

One question I have sometimes been asked is how to most effectively make the economic case for early childhood programs to the business community and to policymakers. I certainly have no magic answers. But here are a few suggestions, based on my own experience.

First, do the preparatory work necessary to elicit participation by business and policy makers.  I have presented at numerous state and local “business summits” on the economic case for early childhood programs. The extent to which such summits are actually attended by the business community and policymakers has varied quite a bit. Sometimes I have ended up preaching to the choir of early childhood advocates, with only a few token business attendees. Other times the business and policy maker attendance has been strong. Unfortunately, “if you schedule it, they will come” does not always work for business summits. You need to convince people that it is worth their while to come, have the right people asking people to come, and be sensitive to schedules of the business community and policy makers.

Second, combine larger events with smaller scale meetings. Some of my best meetings have been small meetings with groups such as Chamber of Commerce Education Committees, or a few local business leaders or legislators. In such small groups, concerns about how to ensure quality and accountability for results can be more frankly shared, and possible compromise solutions discussed.

Third, you need advocates within the business community to present some of this case. Policy wonks like me are helpful (I hope), but insufficient to make the case to the business community and the policy community. You need to identify advocates within the business and policy maker community who are particularly open to the argument that early childhood education can make a difference.  Sometimes such an advocate speaks out of personal experience of the difference that educational opportunities have made to the advocate’s success. Sometimes the advocate has children in the public school system. Personal commitment matters.

Fourth, be patient. This economic case needs to be developed over time and in a wide variety of ways. Success may depend on showing that local programs can work. Developing such locally-based evidence takes time. But if a local program can grow and establish a reputation for success, its political roots will help maintain the program through the sometimes-wild political winds.

In short, there are no quick fixes. Large-scale implementation of early childhood programs is a fundamental change in the educational structure of the U.S. Making such a fundamental change is challenging. There will be resistance. The economic case is important because it provides a justification for such fundamental changes, in that these changes are productive ways of improving economic wealth and well-being. But people need to be persuaded of this economic case over time, through a variety of means, and by a variety of evidence.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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