01/06/2012 10:53 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

Ed Reform Cuomo-Style: Where's the Foundation?

"Jobs, jobs, jobs" is the Governor's mantra, the take-away from his State of the State. And who can blame him? New York, like the rest of the nation, is hurting, and pain relief is a must -- especially for a state CEO with presidential aspirations. Road work, casinos, a mega convention center, a billion to Buffalo, one of the nation's most impoverished cities. Bricks and mortar are tangible, and economic incentives, encouraging. To drive home the message, Cuomo's email arrived, like clockwork, at 7:30, the morning after his address. "Building a new New York ... with you," he reminded me, just in case I had missed the metaphor the day before. But where, oh where, was the foundation?

"The future of our state depends on our public schools," the Governor said, an effective school system "the hallmark of a healthy democracy." He talked about "re-imagining government," and declared public education a "Priority Mission." He announced the formation of yet another education commission to "change the paradigm," zeroing in on teacher accountability and student achievement and management efficiency. (What's new about that?) Finally, he anointed himself the "lobbyist for students," who, unlike, superintendents, principals, teachers, school boards, and bus drivers, he asserted, have no one to defend their interests.

Soaring rhetoric is nice, if not the corporate analogies, but with all due respect to the Governor, who has acquitted himself reasonably well in his first year of office, we can't build a world-class education system without a foundation. If he takes his lobbying seriously, not to mention the future of the state's economy and well-being, he needs to start early, with our youngest students. Here, in early childhood -- from birth until age 8 -- is where learning begins, and where, a voluminous amount of research tells us, the achievement gap is born.

New York, alas, has run into a number of glitches on its multi-year work project of early learning system-building. A pioneer in establishing universal prekindergarten -- Republican governor George Pataki signed off on legislation in 1997 -- the state, nonetheless, has been developmentally delayed, lagging behind other innovative system-builders across the nation. So it was with great glee that early childhood advocates greeted Cuomo's announcement, last summer, of New York's intention to compete for up to $100 million in the federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) . And satisfaction was high, last fall, as New York submitted its application to the U.S Department of Education, along with 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. When the winners were announced, just before Christmas, New York, however, was not to be found among them. Disappointment settled in across the state.

I've always admired, from afar, the governors of others states, including North Carolina's Jim Hunt and New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, who understood the link between early education and economic development -- even before James Heckman put his Nobel prize-winning expertise in labor economics to work for the cause. Hunt was the architect of Smart Start, a public-private partnership that, for two decades, has been supporting the health, care, development, and education of children birth to five. Shaheen, now a U.S. Senator, formed Business Partners for Early Learning in her state during her tenure as governor. And as chair of the Education Commission of the States, from 2000-2001, she made early childhood education her priority, paving the way for today's "cradle-to-career" policy framework.

North Carolina, which has been battling in our chilly economic climes to sustain their golden enterprise, won a federal grant. But there's no time to waste in RTT-ELC envy. New York, in this loss, has gained an opportunity. Cuomo spoke proudly, in his address, of New York's history of progressivism, to which he has contributed with his legalization of gay marriage and his willingness to tamper -- if modestly -- with the tax code. The man has a gift for bringing together strange bedfellows, fostering the kind of public-private collaboration and investment that he cites as a sure-fire strategy for getting the job done. New York's early childhood cognoscenti, in the race for federal funding, have moved the state forward, creating a blueprint for a viable early learning system.

Carpe diem, Governor. Ignore early childhood and the rest of the edifice crumbles.