Most people we pose that question to don't hesitate to answer yes. Yet most don't realize we have such an opportunity — right here in Alabama.
That investment is in early childhood development, ensuring that all children start life healthy, well-nourished and equipped by the time they reach kindergarten with the emotional and cognitive skills required to perform well and achieve. A growing body of evidence clearly demonstrates that few investments our society can make provide the same high returns, in the short term and over the long run. For example:
• Every $1 spent on high-quality, early childhood programs for a disadvantaged child creates $7 to $9 in future savings to the communities and states that invest.
• Families participating in a voluntary mentoring program for expectant mothers and fathers saw a 56 percent reduction in babies' hospital visits.
• Research shows that disadvantaged children with quality early learning opportunities have fewer special-education needs in later years and are more likely to graduate from high school, earn more money and contribute more tax dollars, as well as becoming more productive members of the business community.
These simple realities have helped place early childhood investment as an economic development priority among a mounting number of business people in Alabama and across the nation. More business leaders, economists and policy-makers are recognizing that if we do not get child development and education right, it will diminish our potential as a state with a positive record of growth and innovation.
That's because the strength and sustainability of our labor force is the key to economic growth and fiscal success. Through new economic analysis and scientific evidence, we are beginning to fully appreciate that experiences, from the prenatal period to age 5, are profoundly influential in determining later workplace effectiveness. During these years, neural connections are forming at a rate of 700 per second, shaping the foundation of every child's later educational, mental, physical, emotional and social development.
What happens during this early window of opportunity — both positive and negative — has a real and lasting impact on the children and our society. Some disadvantages can be addressed down the road through remedial education and other intensive programs, but the cost to taxpayers is far greater and the chances of success are much lower than if we deploy evidence-based early childhood programs now.
We all want better educational outcomes in Alabama, so we must invest where it means the most, and where we show the greatest potential for success. As James Heckman, one of our nation's chief economists, says, "the best way to improve our schools is to improve the students sent to them."
Decision-makers in Alabama and across the country face tough budget choices, and the pressure to scale back or put off investments in young children will be daunting. Any funding reductions for preschool, child care, child abuse prevention and early childhood health and home-visiting programs would ultimately do far more harm than good — now and long into the future. Gov. Bob Riley and legislative leaders managed to actually increase funding for the state pre-K program during the last legislative session, and this type of investment is crucial to build the labor force necessary for Alabama's economic future.
Across the country and in Alabama, business leaders understand that this investment in human capital is what will bring the greatest return. What that means in practical terms is that the business community of Alabama is committed to building on-the-ground support for programs that will yield returns for the health, prosperity and future of the country by investing in our children.
We're committed to making these investments now, even as we weather an economic crisis where public money — and the public's appetite to make new expenditures — is in short supply.
We are pleased to join the Alabama Partnership for Children and the Alabama School Readiness Alliance in hosting the Business Leaders' Summit on Early Childhood Investment where we will work together to create the plan to build the strong minds and bodies of the state's children whose efforts will continue Alabama's economic success for generations to come.
William J. Canary is president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama. Ralph Stacy is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama.