OPINION: Early Childhood; Best Investment for Community, Business Strength | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

OPINION: Early Childhood; Best Investment for Community, Business Strength

Early childhood education helps “reduce the achievement gap and the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate and reduce overall social costs,” economist James Heckman warns. Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Early childhood education helps “reduce the achievement gap and the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate and reduce overall social costs,” economist James Heckman warns. Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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Photo by Stephen Wilson

As we near the end of an incredibly tumultuous and unpredictable year, I've thought a lot about what really matters and what kind of Mississippi I want to live in.

I want our state to be safer and economically prosperous, and for every working Mississippian family to have access to programs that support their young children and make their lives easier. The best way to achieve these goals is by making meaningful investments in early childhood.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman once said that "early childhood is the best investment."

Early childhood education will "help reduce the achievement gap and the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate and reduce overall social costs," he added.

I could not agree with him more. Early childhood programs play a crucial role in making sure our young people are successful, communities are safer and the economy is strong. These programs are invaluable to working parents, who are crucial members of our workforce. They need these programs to support their families and make sure their children need to grow developmentally and socio-emotionally. Employers need these programs as well. These crucial supports help ensure that employees are focused, productive and successful.

Unfortunately, in Mississippi, most working families don't have access to these high-quality and affordable childhood programs. Seventy percent of Mississippi children under age 6—roughly 142,000 children total—have parents working outside the home; yet, many of these children are not in high-quality programs. Why? Because nearly half (48 percent) of Mississippians live in a child-care desert, which are areas in which there are at least three children for every licensed child-care slot.

Our current early childhood education, or ECE, system does not meet the needs of Mississippi families, children and employers.

That's why ReadyNation, an organization of business executives building a skilled workforce by promoting solutions that prepare children to succeed, created the Mississippi Early Childhood Investment Council, often referred to as ECIC. The council is committed to supporting the enhancement and expansion of early-childhood education and programs in Mississippi, to strengthen our economy in the short and long term.

I am a proud new member of the ECIC and thrilled to join fellow business leaders and the state in a mission to strengthen working families and communities.

On Nov. 12, the ECIC held its annual meeting to discuss how we can best support early childhood in Mississippi moving forward. The event kicked off with opening remarks by Tonya Ware, the project director of ReadyNation Mississippi who is based in metro Jackson.

Council for a Strong America's President and CEO Barry Ford the addressed the council, explaining the ECIC's overarching goals. "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to work on increasing awareness, increase child-care options, and influence decision-makers into making appropriate systemic policy decisions and investments in children," he said.

The Mississippi ECIC aims to show the state's business leaders that we can support ECE in a myriad of ways. We can use our time, influence, and voice to help strengthen early childhood and our economy. If we come together and advocate for public investments in ECE with policymakers, and get involved in our local communities, we will be able to initiate substantial, state-wide impact.

Mississippi is making valuable strides in early childhood education. State-funded programs garner a strong child-care rating and are providing the tools to help ensure our youngest children grow into well-rounded and productive adults.

However, as we head into 2021 and continue to battle the pandemic, we need to support and invest in this crucial sector. As a new member of the Mississippi ECIC, I'm looking forward to continuing to enhance business leaders' role in this progress. High-quality, affordable, and accessible early childhood programs are key to making Mississippi strong today, tomorrow and long into the future.

Jeff Good is the president and owner of Mangia Bene Restaurant Management Group. He is a member of the Mississippi Early Childhood Investment Council and lives in Jackson.

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the JFP.

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