By Will Patten
On Feb. 1 I attended a meeting of Vermont business leaders to discuss the importance of early childhood education. Governor Phil Scott came to address the group and received a spontaneous and enthusiastic standing ovation—not because he had cut business taxes or gutted regulations but because a few days earlier he had proposed bold ideas for improving Vermont’s education system. No one appreciates the importance of the education and training of Vermonters more than the people who employ them.
During his brief talk the governor mused that, were we to have an opportunity to design an ideal education system from scratch, it was unlikely to look anything like what we have today. I’ve done some musing myself on that subject and that’s why I’m writing this. Some of the assumptions that underlie our school system are seriously out of date.
The first is that children should be nurtured and protected in the home (read: mothers) for the first four years of life. We now know that the young brain is hungry for stimulation and exploration and that 90 percent of a young brain’s development will take place before the age of five. Unfortunately, too many young Vermonters today find themselves parked in unstimulating child care situations during those early years.
A second out-of-date assumption is that school exists to transfer knowledge: the laws of math, science, grammar; the accepted masterpieces of literature and art; the established narrative of our past. That function was long ago outsourced to Google and the product of good schooling today is a curious and critical thinker.
Third is the unchallenged assumption that all kids needed the summer off so they can help with chores on the farm. For way too many adolescents and teens, summers are spent in unsupervised and unproductive environments playing video games like Grand Theft Auto.
Most of the governor’s proposals had already been rejected by the Legislature by the time he spoke to us and he closed by saying that if we cannot agree on the implementation, we should all be able to support the goals of investing in pre-k and post K-12 education. (Another standing ovation.)
The remainder of the meeting was an open discussion of how Vermont can build the education system we need. There was consensus that a continuum of learning, from “Cradle to Career”, that was also affordable, would be a strong magnet to attract young Millennial families to Vermont.
With typical business acumen, several people suggested that if we cannot reallocate any of the current $1.6 billion education budget then it would make sense to integrate expanded early childhood learning programs into the existing K-12 budget and structure. If, with declining K-12 enrollments, we have excess tax-exempt facilities and ever-increasing personnel costs, why can’t we leverage those resources to provide our zero-to-five-year-old Vermonters with the stimulation they need and crave?
Vermont Business Roundtable’s recent study, “Vermont’s Early Care and Learning Dividend,” demonstrates that investment in early childhood learning yields a return on investment of 3:1. For this taxpayer, business person and voter, that is very compelling. Let’s figure out how to make it happen.
Will Patten is a retired Ben & Jerry’s executive and former executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.