RICHMOND — A coalition of Virginia business executives is concerned that a “patchwork quilt” of early childhood programs isn’t effectively preparing the commonwealth’s future workforce.
“Virginia has yet to adopt the guiding vision and the viable framework needed to get the job done,” said Gary Thomson, the Mid-Atlantic regional managing partner for the public accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman.
Thomson was a guest speaker at the Virginia Chamber Foundation and the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s annual briefing on the economics of early childhood, held at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond on Tuesday.
Since 2013, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce has included recommendations for early childhood education in Blueprint Virginia, a policy framework aimed at bringing the state back to the top of national business climate rankings.
“There was clear recognition that the skills needed for a strong workforce begin forming very early on, and that early childhood education needed to be considered an essential pillar in our education and workforce systems,” Thomson said.
Thomson recently was reappointed to the Virginia School Readiness Committee by Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. He also is a member of the Early Childhood Business Alliance, which aims to advance a strategic plan for Virginia’s investment in early childhood education.
“Without a suitable, long-term, understandable, goal-oriented framework for early childhood education, my fear is that we will continue to run towards the next ‘shiny object,’” Thomson said.
Thomson said the Early Childhood Business Alliance is collaborating with Gov. Ralph Northam, state legislators and local leaders to draft an Early Childhood Success Act.
“This act will outline in statute a cohesive public-private, data-informed, early childhood system bolstered by local and regional innovation,” Thomson said.
Virginia first lady Pamela Northam attended Tuesday’s luncheon and spoke briefly about the early childhood initiatives of her husband’s administration.
“Having more parents in the workplace means that more families need access to safe, affordable and high-quality options for early childhood,” Pamela Northam said.
Forty-five percent of parents nationwide report being absent from work due to childcare issues, according to Richmond nonprofit Child Care Aware. That translates to $28.9 billion in wages lost by families and $4.4 billion in revenue lost by businesses each year.
Michael J. Friedlander, vice president for Health Sciences and Technology at Virginia Tech, spoke about new research on brain development.
“When we think about how to deploy our investments and our strategies, we need to think about our valuation of the future, and we need to start early,” Friedlander said.
Alison Dwier-Selden, lead coach for preschool, Title I and K-8 language arts for Albemarle County Public Schools, was one of several attendees from Charlottesville-area schools and nonprofits.
In her previous employment as a teacher and a principal, Dwier-Selden said she observed that many children started kindergarten lacking crucial skills for school readiness.
“I could pick out the children who had that year of preschool, and those who didn’t,” she said. “Preschool really mattered.”
Brad Armstrong, a former partner at the Martin Agency in Richmond, said the Virginia business community now agrees that “it is crystal clear that what happens [to a child] between the ages of zero and 5 sets the trajectory of future success.”
Armstrong is now a board member for Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond, a regional network of organizations supported by the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation. He said Virginia businesses want to partner with the public sector to fund and promote early childhood programs.
“People are working in many silos and we’ve got to get them working together,” Armstrong said. “The business community really wants to see that efficiency.”