December 8, 2006
Column By RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writer
These days big-shot bank presidents and CEOs can't stop talking about how poor children matter.
"It's not how are we going to compete with Boston and New York. It's how are we going to compete with the Far East," said Webster Bank President William T. Bromage, who lamented the "third world" education in our cities to business leaders gathered at Northeast Utilities the other day.
"Forty or 50 percent of our future workforce population will come out of our inner-city schools," Bromage said.
These bankers know the facts. Here's one: At Hartford's Milner School, four out of five third-graders read at a "below basic" level. By 10th grade half of all students remain poor readers.
Do you think these kids will ever have enough income to take out a mortgage from Webster?
Once, this was the territory of liberals and legal aid lawyers. Now the Lexus set is talking urgently about preschool, education and equality.
What in the name of the Hartford Golf Club is going on here?
"It's very obvious," John R. Rathgeber, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, told me. "The success of our economy and our quality of life is going to depend on our future workforce."
Today, Rathgeber will lead the charge into the governor's office, presenting a $100 million "investment plan" for poor children, the ones who show up unprepared for school and don't learn to read. The ones who will be the employees of CBIA companies one day, after the suburban workforce has retired.
There are a million priorities for our state: better highways, affordable housing, health insurance and cutting taxes on luxury cars. But when the top-floor guys warn us about the inequality destroying us, I'm all ears.
If city kids don't succeed - like children at Hartford's Milner School, where just one third-grader reached the state goal for reading this year - we all will suffer.
"In a relatively short period of time, if we are successful, you will start to see improved school readiness," Rathgeber said. For six months, Rathgeber and a study group appointed by the governor have been preparing a plan to make sure poor children get into quality preschool programs. The diverse group has come up with an aggressive, expensive and impressive proposal.
The plan would expand preschool, train and improve pay for teachers and add facilities with an aim of producing children better able to learn.
"This is a commitment by the state to make sure that every kid who lives in poverty gets access to preschool. Currently we are reaching about 30 percent of the eligible population," said David Nee, executive director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund and a co-chairman of the Early Childhood Research and Policy Council.
Business leaders, Nee said, "are worried about the skills of people already entering the workforce."
One intriguing proposal is for portable "scholarships" that would allow parents to take a preschool grant to an approved program of their choice. For example, if a mother lives in East Hartford but works at Aetna, she could enroll her child in a quality preschool close to her work - perhaps one in her own office building.
So what if we're talking enlightened self-interest or if this sounds like a voucher. Children who need preschool will get it.
What matters is important people are finally waking up to a crisis. Maybe our politicians will too.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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