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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Invest in children for nation's economic health

Sponsored by the Partnership for America's Economic Success, the Telluride Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment embraced the principles of investing in America's children. Ensuring young people are safe, healthy, educated and cared for will help the nation's economy in the long run.

Special to The Times

ON a sunny September weekend, 150 business and economic leaders gathered in Telluride, Colo., as the meltdown of the U.S. economy began dominating headlines. But this was not another example of wealthy CEOs enjoying the high life while working class Americans were losing their homes. National leaders were contributing to the Telluride Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment even as they dealt with the most pressing economic crisis since the Great Depression. In recent presidential debates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has emphasized investments in early childhood education. The Telluride Summit helps explain why.

As we move through this economic crisis, we must invest wisely. The principles developed through the Telluride Summit articulate it this way: "Long-term U.S. economic strength and fiscal sustainability depends on our future workforce. Investing in children is a vital economic growth strategy and a priority of business, government and philanthropy. Private and public resources are limited and should be allocated based on evidence of effectiveness."

Sponsored by the Partnership for America's Economic Success, the summit's featured speakers included Dennis Lockhart, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and Nobel Laureate Economist James Heckman. While today's financial crisis might suggest we cannot address young children's needs; evidence makes it clear that failing to do so is something we cannot afford.

As we rebuild our economy we must develop the educated citizenry and workforce we need. Currently, less than half of Washington children arrive at kindergarten ready for success in school, and research demonstrates that kids who start behind rarely catch up. We have set up too many schools and children for potential failure before students even reach the kindergarten door. The good news is that longitudinal research shows investing in young children can improve school readiness while providing significant economic benefits to children and to society. What happens in children's earliest years has enormous influence on their lives — on their ability to work with others, their emotional resilience, their academic success and their lifetime earnings. Failing to support young children and families will cost us another generation of opportunity and substantially limit our collective economic future.

When children are held, read to, talked with, and played with in a loving, engaging way, their brains develop the pathways they will use to learn and grow the rest of their lives. Successful early childhood investments mean children are cared for by loving adults who can assure they are healthy and have opportunities to develop the social, emotional and cognitive skills they will need for success in school and life. It means having communities where parents and caregivers can access the information and supports they need, and the high quality child care and preschool options they desire.

In Washington state, business, philanthropy and government have begun to partner with those serving young children and families. The Business Partnership for Early Learning in Seattle and Thrive by Five Washington are important examples. Reach Out and Read is using public-private partnerships to support more than 300 Washington doctors and nurses who talk with families about the importance of reading with young children and give children new, developmentally and culturally appropriate books to take home at each medical checkup. This evidence-based program is expanding to engage more doctors, with support from corporations, foundations, and local United Way agencies. Reach Out and Read encourages parents to cuddle and share books with their children each day, and helps develop the early literacy skills children need before they can learn to read in school.

We face unprecedented challenges and unlimited opportunities. The leaders we elect in the next few weeks must recognize the vital connection between investing in young children and investing in our economic success. They must partner actively with the business community to implement strategic, effective, long-term investments; and we the people must commit ourselves to changing society to support young children and families. Our reward for doing so will be children ready for success in school; an educated, compassionate work force; and a vibrant economy that benefits us all.

Dr. Jill Sells is a pediatrician and director of Docs For Tots and Reach Out and Read in Washington state.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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