I live in and love Little Rock. Like most of you, I want our vibrant city to dazzle, not just shine.
I want astronauts circling the globe to see Little Rock from space. But if by virtue of the sheer astrophysics of it all, they cannot see us, nothing should stop us from seeing our city as a star growing ever brighter. Led by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and our city Board of Directors, we can make it so by choosing to invest our time, energy and treasure in our children.
Yes, I’m talking about the one-cent sales tax proposal. Without reservation, I am hopeful the board will give a “yes” vote to placing it on the ballot and leave it to us voters to make the ultimate decision about what Little Rock will be. I appreciate the burden of leadership and the weight of such a decision. It is weight best shared by all voters, especially because of what such a decision can mean for those who depend on us the most: our children.
Though there is much more in the proposal, early childhood education is the foundation on which our future will be built. Continuing to routinely insist that our children are our future does little good if we fail to ensure they get a healthy, strong start in life. Years of research make it abundantly clear that early childhood education boosts quality of life, the economy and social well-being. Dr. Jack Shonkoff, an internationally recognized early childhood development expert, reminds us that from the beginning, children’s brains begin to adapt to the conditions of their lives. In other words, the biology of the brain deals with what’s available. Obviously, it cannot seek out good conditions as a child needs them. It is, therefore, up to us adults to provide the conditions in which children’s brains can thrive.
And as the children thrive, so will Little Rock.
Early childhood education is about opportunities for children, families and the vitality of our city. It is common knowledge that many families cannot afford high-quality childhood education for their children. Those who can are fortunate, but even they are bound by the sheer lack of available high-quality childhood centers in the city of Little Rock. So clearly early childhood education availability is important for all of our children and families.
Over 10 years, the sales tax would produce $40 million to increase early childhood opportunities: slots for Little Rock infants and toddlers in families below 200 percent of poverty; spaces for 3-year-olds in families between 200 and 300 percent of poverty in pre-K programs; job training and technical assistance for early childhood workers and the managers of facilities; and a new city college savings plan to tell our children we want to invest in their futures. It is noteworthy that programs focused on the lowest-income families and geared to the earliest years of children’s lives — like this proposal — have the highest return on invest.
The return on that investment would be an eye-popping $10 for every $1, resulting in a $400 million return over 10 years. True to the needs, voters would have an opportunity to invest in the short-term and long-term needs. Many parents who need to and/or who would prefer to work full time would have that chance. Parents who need to improve their skills to create a better life for their families could have the opportunity to do so. These parents could pursue a higher quality of life for their families with peace of mind knowing the early childhood education their children are receiving is of high quality and responsive to their children’s needs. Response to those needs would be sustained by providing early childhood education providers small-business technical assistance so they too can grow and thrive. Additionally, the city’s early childhood education program would provide training for workers to improve their skills and quality of service.
A healthy start equals savings in the long run. The longer we fail to invest in a child’s life, the higher the cost of intervention looms. The smarter choice of early investment will result in savings to help enrich children’s lives or to simply invest in the next generation. These investments can break cycles of desperation and lack of upward mobility. Research shows that people who had access to high-quality early childhood care are much more likely to be employed in skilled positions and less likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system.
The words of Dr. Shonkoff about how the brain adapts to conditions keep coming back to me. I hope we have not become too unintentionally adapted to our present conditions that we fail to meet the need to boldly invest in changing those conditions. There are children and families in Little Rock who need us to see and do differently. Thousands of young people want to raise their families here. Many who have left wish to return to a Little Rock where they can raise their families. If we build that Little Rock, they, along with young people new to our city, will come.
It is with deepest respect and an eye to a dazzling future that I ask each of you to think of each of Little Rock’s children as our very own. I ask you to support a Little Rock legacy of never becoming too adapted to move forward. Let’s vote “yes” for early childhood education and for the full promise of our city.