Paying for education versus paying for prisons: which would you choose?

by Ginger Young, Executive Director

I was fortunate to attend NC State University’s 2018 Institute for Emerging Issues Forum at the Raleigh Convention Center this past Monday; this year’s Forum was entitled kidoNomiCs: Investing Early in Our Future. It was an all-star lineup of elected officials, business leaders, philanthropists, nonprofit activists, and academics, all coming together to explore what the impact of early childhood investments mean for future workforce development.

This was the second year of a two-year exploration of the connections among early childhood investments, North Carolina’s economy, and the development of a well-trained workforce; the 2017 IEI Forum began this discussion a year ago. As someone who thinks obsessively every day about what we need to do to ensure that every child can read and can succeed, it was an honor and a thrill to be in an audience of 800 who have clearly made the success of North Carolina’s children a priority. With this much commitment and this many smart people, surely we can realize our grandest dreams for our kids!

And while I left the Forum still feeling that great things are possible for our kids (I am an unapologetic and relentless optimist), I had some grave concerns as well.

Consider:  The US News and World Report ranks North Carolina FIRST among our 50 states in quality of pre-K. It ranks North Carolina FORTY-FIRST in access to pre-K.

Ouch. The legacy of excellence started by Governor Jim Hunt and Smart Start carries on, but only for some: it is simply not reaching the vast majority of very young children who need it. This was not Governor Hunt’s vision, and it should not be ours.

My discouraged takeaway from several of the sessions was the assertion by the speakers that doing early childhood right is simply too expensive to be achievable for all. Really? Is it truly too expensive, or do we just lack muscle and will? We have already checked out on our responsibility to provide the kinds of supports our youngest residents need – such as universal pre-K, which could leverage a much, much greater return over a lifetime than the up-front investment it requires.

Encouragingly, a Blue Ribbon Commission on Local Financing Options for Early Childhood Development (pictured here) kicked off the first day of the Forum with a report of their main findings; the Commission is co-chaired by Durham’s own Brenda Howerton, a County Commissioner and a passionate advocate for children. Among the findings, there are roles for both private and public capital in building a base of investments in the first years. This is a moment in our state’s history which demands all hands on deck. Together, as recommended by the Commission, we must combine innovative approaches and higher-risk pilots with proven strategies, assess what works, bring the winners to scale, and repeat – until NO child is left out.

This challenge demands that we all stretch and invest – not just with our funds but also with our hearts, minds, and commitment over many years. Really, truly, we have no choice if we aspire to success for this state we love and – most of all — for North Carolina’s children, all born brilliant. As one speaker so bluntly put it at the Forum, we pay for it either way: we either pay for education or we pay for prisons. The choice is ours. Which would you choose?