There is an abundance of research related to early childhood development that documents both its critical importance to the life-long well-being of individual children and the tremendous social and economic benefits that accrue to the larger society that result from investing in quality early childhood programs. Research in the field of neuroscience documents the importance of addressing the developmental needs of children during early childhood in order to equip them with critical skills and put them on a positive life trajectory that maximizes their chances for long-term success.
Research in economics over more than a decade demonstrates the direct link between the well-being of children and the vitality and viability of the communities in which we live. Economic research also shows that, in terms of economic benefits, investing in the development of young children yields the highest return on investment. Such investment results in adults who earn greater income and have higher rates of home ownership. It also reduces the chances of being on welfare or incarcerated, as well as reducing public costs related to remedial education, social service provision, and operation of the criminal justice system. For details on these returns and benefits, see the website of Nobel Laureate in Economics James Heckman, The Heckman Equation.
The response of many cities and states to this compelling research on two fronts has been to strengthen policies that promote the well-being of young children and to make significant investments in early childhood development. Investments have been made to put more children in high quality child care, establish broad access to pre-kindergarten programs, and link children to a wide range of early childhood services. Both governors and mayors are providing leadership for these initiatives. For the most part, the State of Missouri and St. Louis region have not, however, followed suite. By failing to make significant strategic investments in early childhood, the potential of many of our children is squandered and our communities are put at a competitive disadvantage. (See St. Louis Business Journal OpEd – Our Community, Our Children, 2004.)
State government policies and programs in Missouri related to early childhood are among the weakest in the nation. The state’s child care licensing regulations are 20-years old. Missouri’s Child Care Assistance Program has among the country’s most stringent eligibility requirements, ranking 47th, and it reimburses child care providers for services at the lowest rate in the nation. The state does not have a Quality Rating System and its quality improvement programs are limited. While many states throughout the country – including those that boarder Missouri – have invested in pre-kindergarten programs as a means of increasing school readiness and providing strategic assistance to help high-risk, high need children overcome the disadvantages they face, according to recent news reports Missouri lags far behind. Against the backdrop of this already shaky foundation for promoting early childhood development, in the face of budget shortfalls Missouri in recent years has further dismantled the early childhood programs and supports that are in place. Programs and services for young children have been disproportionately targeted for major budget cuts and even eliminated in their entirety. The international Parents as Teachers program founded in Missouri being only one of many notable examples.
The State of Illinois has taken a more robust approach to early childhood issues. Policies promoting the well-being of young children have been put in place, as have programs to improve child care quality and make Pre-K available to children who can benefit. Now, however, that state fiscal crisis imperils those programs.
In the City of St. Louis, Mayor Francis Slay has demonstrated strong leadership related to promoting early childhood development. In 2004 he accepted the National League of Cities challenge to develop a Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Success and recently launched a second phase of that initiative. Mayor Slay also has been working with the local business and philanthropic communities to increase civic engagement in the types of strategic efforts to invest in early childhood development that have been widely and successfully employed in other cities.
At the regional level, St. Louis has lagged behind many other metropolitan areas in employing early childhood development as a strategy for improving the well-being of children, enhancing the quality of community life, and promoting regional economic development. Business and civic leaders here have been slower than leaders in many of the regions with which we compare and compete to act on the well-documented benefits of early childhood development in helping children achieve their full potential and making the region more competitive and viable.
To move the St. Louis region more into the mainstream in strategically promoting early childhood development, the St. Louis Regional Early Childhood Council was launched in early 2011. The Early Childhood Council has been established with the support of the PNC Foundation. PNC is a national leader in promoting early childhood development through its 10-year, $100 million Grow Up Great® initiative.
The St. Louis Regional Early Childhood Council will develop a community vision for a comprehensive system that addresses the full range of early childhood needs for all St. Louis area children. Council members will work jointly to achieve that vision, implementing and coordinating policies and programs and working collaboratively with involved systems, programs, and initiatives all playing their appropriate roles. Learn more about the Regional Early Childhood Council.