Pre-K Difficulties: The Region Faces Early Childhood Education Challenges

Early childhood education plays an important ancillary role in getting Central Florida's economy back up to speed during the coronavirus outbreak and beyond.

Florida has been reopening businesses throughout the state. But as schools and early childhood learning centers remain closed, much of the area's workforce faces challenges in getting back to work since there's no one to take care of their young kids.

Early learning isn't just important for working parents. It also helps prepare and train future members of the workforce. High-quality early childhood education programs increase employability by 23% and children in those programs earn 33% more on average when they become adults, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

With that in mind, area stakeholders want to use this time to change early childhood education programs — which include all levels before kindergarten — so more students can have better odds for success. That means more than funding and local efforts alone, according to Central Florida Foundation President Mark Brewer. Some estimates showed that to get existing pre-K programs to work adequately for U.S. students would cost $60 billion, Brewer said.

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“This is like all of us as volunteers taking on the I-4 Ultimate construction project. We don’t have much money, we've got some people who really care, we’re collective, so let's swing some hammers and see if we can build a freeway. That is the equivalent of what we are doing now."

Brewer was among 17 local experts and business executives who work in and with the early childhood education industry that were invited to Orlando Business Journal's early childhood education virtual roundtable on May 15. Participants spoke about the successes and challenges of working in the field.

Here are some highlights from the discussion:

On prioritizing early childhood education

Linda Landman Gonzalez, vice president of social responsibility, Orlando Magic: "I’m blessed that my children, like many of your children, know what education is. The first gifts they got when they were born were books. There’s no access to that for a lot of our population. Until it is recognized as a priority and there is a commitment by all of us — from who we vote for to how we talk to who holds the purse strings — we will be having this conversation for a long time."

On working together

Jonni Kimberly, human resources director, Rosen Hotels & Resorts: "We are all sort of siloed. There isn’t one person crying from the mountaintop: ‘Follow me and this is what can happen.' Let’s all get our collective thoughts together into a universal type of program. The economy continues to drive votes, but people need to understand the impact of education on the economy and what early learning does for the economy of that baby and the next baby."

On the need for a more organized system

Dianne Jacob, vice president/director of client and community relations, PNC Bank: "The system that is established is K-12 or higher education. Since there is the lack of a system in early learning, it is difficult for businesses to identify the ability to do collective impact funding for learning. As we see momentum build for the need for childcare and early learning as we reopen, I think it is the opportunity to create some sort of systemwide funding effort."

On childcare needs as workers return to offices

Karen Willis, CEO, Early Learning Coalition of Orange County: "The conversations I’m having are not about early learning; they are about babysitting, daycares and if they can open. I’ve tried to push this conversation around early learning, it’s our opportunity to start kids off on the right foot. The focus right now — we need to acknowledge it because we can move the conversation to early learning — is if the daycares are open and do they have the capacity to take kids so that people can work? What happens in those classrooms is critical to the future of our community to come back from Covid-19."

On attracting business

Lauren Chianese, lead facilitator, Minga Advisors: "[We don't have] a really high-quality early learning system for the dual purposes of parents being able to work and children getting the education they need to be successful in school, the workforce and life. Without it, we remain vulnerable to these kinds of crises as a community because our economy is flat — we do not have diverse sectors. When a situation like this hits — when people are not traveling, and not going to restaurants and theme parks — we are going to have more pain and it will last longer. We have that lack of economic diversity in our community because we don’t have the talent pipeline to attract new businesses."