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The Real No-Brainer

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Last week NYTimes columnist Nicholas Kristof endorsed major investment in early childhood education as the only way out of poverty for millions -- the only way to even the playing field for all citizens. This has been the elephant in the room for so long, the words you're not allowed to utter in "reasonable" company because it just isn't "feasible." But, as we know, things become feasible only once you start talking about them, brainstorming as a society on how to make it work.

Currently, millions of children sit in front of TV's for the first five years of their lives -- either at home, or in bad childcare (because that's all their parents can afford). No thoughtful interchanges, no challenges to figure things out for themselves, no active play. Add to that lots of sugary, fatty food. Formula for failure. Almost literally, a no-brainer -- on two fronts: reducing the brain power of our kids, through society's failure to use its brains to create a workable system for all its citizens.

We know our elementary ed is failing many kids. But the reality is that even the best elementary ed is bound to fail kids who enter kindergarten completely unprepared. The damage has already been done.

A good, affordable childcare system would provide the educational fix.

If that's not enough of a positive for you -- such childcare is also a jobs engine. Hundreds of thousands of good, well-paid jobs would be created for teachers in the centers, for construction workers to build the centers, and for those who teach the teachers.

Though we think of childcare jobs as low paying (because they so often are!), they are not low paid when the (good) care provided actually involves skilled workers. Which is why, within the current pay-as-you-go system, the words "good" and "affordable" can be linked for so few families.

To work for all citizens, good care has to be subsidized. That has been the case for Head Start and within our military childcare system, but those are not available for most kids. Thus millions of working moms and dads have to put their kids in bad care. They lose, the kids lose, and we all lose, because the American workforce ends up enormously under-skilled.

So who provides the subsidy? The only fair way is to have the beneficiaries pay. Which means... business.

U.S. business depends on there being an educated workforce available -- already they're complaining about lack of skilled blue and white collar workers to fill the available spots. Microsoft has asked Congress to raise the cap on green cards so they can bring in more high tech savvy foreign workers. That's easier than just educating the folks at home? Apparently yes, given the unwillingness to talk about (let alone address) real issues.

But once those issues really enter the conversation, a business-funded national consortium willing to invest for the long term, supervised by responsible educators of proven experience (not sharks aiming to make a quick buck) could do the job.

Best case, government would be part of the collaboration (an educated populace serves the public interest too) , maybe along the lines of the KIPP Academy model (funded through state charter school dollars with contributions from corporations like the GAP and other visionaries). New taxes are not playing well these days, but a "worker development fee" could be a concept whose day has come. There's lots of room for thinking this through. But whatever the particulars -- it's time for leadership here.

A national good affordable childcare system would pay forward on at least three levels: First, it would increase our human capital and put our nation on track to compete globally with the many nations who already invest more in their kids than we do. Studies suggests that a universal pre-school program would return many times the value to investment over the child's lifetime, and benefits would multiply further with expanded early education.

Second, it would inject a huge economic stimulus, creating many good jobs nationally. The teaching jobs would differ from current childcare positions in levels of pay, training, and respect. The human capital of teachers would grow as well as that of kids.

Third, the program would free moms at all class levels to participate more fully in growing the economy and as citizens by making good childcare more affordable and by changing the current culture around childcare -- countering the current guilt-inducing climate that misrepresents childcare's role. Good childcare has much to offer kids in terms of socialization, range of activities, structured environment, and skills development, especially if it's combined with flexible work arrangements that allow parents to cut back on work to be with kids when needed.

Enough with the no-brainers! Let's get busy with the hard work of thinking it through and actually educating the workforce of tomorrow.

Elizabeth Gregory teaches at the University of Houston and is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood. She also blogs about the economics and politics of family at www.domesticproduct.net.