Published Friday, August 2, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:17 pm
World-Herald editorial: Stage set for early-childhood progress

Nebraska and its public university system are about to take big steps forward on early childhood issues. This is a greatly encouraging sign for the state’s future.

The University of Nebraska has hired Samuel Meisels, one of the nation’s most respected experts on the subject, to head NU’s new, multi-campus early childhood initiative. This new project will promote effective ideas for supporting families with at-risk young children and honing day care services and educational methods.

The central aim is to get as many Nebraska children as possible equipped to start school on the right foot.

At the same time, a strong consensus has emerged among Nebraska business and political leaders across philosophical lines to develop a coordinated, better-funded strategy to help the state’s disadvantaged children in their earliest years.

The payoff from this investment — as well as the burdens if society fails to address this need — are far-ranging. Jim Krieger, vice chairman and chief financial officer of Gallup Inc., provided details on that point when he testified this spring to the Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee about early childhood legislation.

“Twenty percent of today’s work force is functionally illiterate, and 50 percent of kindergartners start behind in school and typically stay behind,” said Krieger, who also is chairman of Nebraska’s Early Childhood Business Roundtable. “Once this begins, there’s a compounding impact that if you start behind, as in interest, you don’t typically catch up.”

That fact is especially sobering when one considers that the percentage of Nebraska children living below the poverty line has been increasing.

In 2007, 14.9 percent of the state’s children lived in poverty, according to Voices for Children, a Nebraska nonprofit organization focusing on child needs. By 2011, the figure had risen to 18.1 percent.

The good news, Krieger told lawmakers, is that when government and private entities direct resources toward improving conditions for at-risk children in their earlier years, the return on investment can be up to 10 percent. Nationally respected experts on early childhood issues — Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman and professor Jack Shonkoff of Harvard — have underscored that same point in presentations in Nebraska in recent years.

If Nebraskans work together to implement well-crafted early childhood strategies, Krieger explained, such an approach “will produce the future work force we need while reducing other demands on our tax dollars such as grade repetition, special education costs, work force training, welfare and incarceration.”

Those arguments carried weight with Nebraska legislators this year. By large bipartisan majorities, they agreed to increase state grants for early childhood needs and to establish a quality rating system for large, publicly funded child care centers.

In addition, a new state law directs the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties to take on responsibilities relating to early childhood education, building on the foundation laid on this issue by the member school districts.

Nonprofits and school districts across Nebraska have long been pointing out the benefits of a focus on early childhood issues, and with NU’s new Buffett Early Childhood Institute, the stage is set for major progress.

Created in 2011 with an undisclosed gift from Omaha philanthropist Susie Buffett, the institute will have an endowment that is expected to exceed $100 million once all public and private donations are in.

As a World-Herald news article by staff writer Julie Anderson explained Thursday, no other major public university has undertaken such an initiative.

This is one more example of how NU is carving out meaningful niches for itself, enhancing its national reputation and contributing in significant ways to Nebraska’s well-being.

It makes great sense for Nebraska to direct this attention to early childhood needs. It’s a practical issue with crucial long-term consequences for individuals and for society. And it’s an issue all Nebraskans can rally around.

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